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To withstand authoritarian threats, ethics standards must be stronger

Jeff Hauser is the founder and director of the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research. Eleanor Eagan is the research director of its Governance Team.

Earlier this year, many breathed a sigh of relief, after France’s far-right opposition candidate Marine Le Pen’s bid for the country’s presidency went down in resounding defeat for the second time in five years. 

That she was able to reprise her role as a second-round presidential candidate, however, let alone pick up close to enough votes, attests to a troubling fact: In France, and elsewhere, the threat from right-wing populist movements is mounting — not receding. 

To be sure, no single factor alone can wholly explain the growing populist appeal, but rising worries about political corruption across the globe have surely played a part. Indeed, even if their interest in the issue is far from genuine, right-wing populist politicians have proven especially adept at capitalizing on a growing sense that governments are working for private interests more than they are for regular people.

And those who claim to be committed to resisting them, now need to get better at fighting back. 

In late April, we spoke to European lawmakers and civil society groups who have watched with alarm, as the revolving door between the European Union’s governing institutions picked up speed with American companies and autocratic governments alike. Drawing on observations from our work here in the United States, we then offered suggestions for how they might strengthen ethics standards at home. 

While the policy specifics may, of course, differ according to regional context, the principles that guide ethics reform should look the same everywhere. And firstly, lawmakers must recognize that perceptions are key to a successful ethics program. If a practice plausibly corrodes trust in government — giving the impression that public officials may be acting in the interest of personal or private profit and not the public, for example — the practice should be outlawed, even if, in some instances, it may be harmless.  

Lawmakers should also strive to establish red lines that are simple to explain, administer and enforce. 

Consider, for example, the current effort to address U.S. Congressional stock trading. After a first bid to police congressional insider trading by collecting and publishing annual and periodic financial disclosures for hundreds of lawmakers, staffers, and their spouses utterly failed to put an end to trading scandals, Congress has now turned to a more promising strategy: banning stock trading — and, in some iterations, stock ownership — outright. Such a ban would not only strike at the heart of public anxiety, but it would require significantly less paperwork and monitoring, leaving less room for errors and making meaningful enforcement that much easier.  

The same principle can be applied to the revolving door. Rather than imposing narrow limits on what a former official can work on while at a regulated corporate entity — and asking the public to either trust in that official’s moral integrity or in a beleaguered ethics system’s ability to enforce the rules — lawmakers should simply prohibit them from working there for a specific period of time.  

Additionally, ethics rules should be as comprehensive as possible to encompass all positions of public trust and the many ways corporations buy influence. This may seem relatively straightforward, but it bears emphasizing. Just in the last year, illogical and unfair gaps in who must abide by the basic tenets of U.S. ethics law have been the source of multiple scandals, including, most notably, at the Federal Reserve. 

In another example, it’s a reasonable, though unproven, inference that Senior White House Adviser Anita Dunn took a lower salary to avoid ethics disclosure rules — in essence, purchasing her right to secrecy at a rate of about $4,000 per month. This raises serious concerns about whether ethics law as written acts as a meaningful check on wealthy appointees.  

Similarly, the current system’s failure to recognize or restrict many of the strategies corporations employ to buy influence has helped fuel a growing sense that government outcomes are hopelessly rigged. For the most part, existing rules only impose restrictions on activity that falls under the narrow legal definition of lobbying, leaving many other practices untouched — like when former officials direct subordinates on who and how to lobby their former agencies, or when corporations subsidize think tanks to produce favorable research.  

Ironically, lobbying is both too limited and too expansive a lens through which to understand and regulate political influence. Consider that, under current rules, lobbyists who advocate for the passage of, say, a voting rights bill while at a public interest advocacy organization, may face more restrictions when entering a government position than someone who led advocacy strategy for Exxon Mobil without registering to lobby. 

That brings us to our next principle: Ethics rules should distinguish between advocacy on behalf of for-profit entities — as well as those that principally work to advance their interests — and all other forms of advocacy. That the two are not equivalent is simple common sense. And while advocacy, as individuals or in concert, is critical to democratic government, allowing corporations to dig into their deep pockets to gain an unfair advantage threatens it.  

Each of these principles will be worth little, however, without the infrastructure to ensure the timely and robust enforcement of ethics rules. Simply put, ethics offices must have sufficient resources to unearth and investigate breaches. They must also have the independence required to take on powerful actors and win — i.e. those whom ethics officials are investigating shouldn’t have the power to fire them. 

Meanwhile, whether in the form of heavier fines, the revocation of professional licenses, or other strategies, sanctions need to be severe enough to deter noncompliance. If not, lawmakers’ carefully crafted rules will become little more than a joke.    

Finally, no matter how strong the ethics system, lawmakers on both sides of the Atlantic should welcome sunlight as an additional disinfectant. To facilitate public scrutiny, information about political appointees should be presumptively available, easily accessible and as comprehensive as possible. 

Rules written according to these principles would radically transform the business of governing around the world, and would police those seeking to influence the government.

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