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Unrigging the System

Broken Capitol building
(Photo: Pixabay; Illustration by POGO)

Fixing the rigged system in Washington, D.C. isn’t only about addressing problems with campaign finance and lobbying around elections. It’s also about stopping the corruption that goes on in the years between elections that affects Americans’ daily lives—so much of which is currently legal.

Today, we’re writing from Tulane University in New Orleans, where POGO Executive Director Danielle Brian joins over 100 minds from across the political spectrum—advocacy leaders, academics, philanthropists, journalists, celebrities—at the “Unrig The System” summit to share ideas on how to effect the meaningful changes that our political system so desperately needs before it can truly work in the public’s interest.

There’s a lot to talk about when it comes to reforming the American political system, all of it important. But what Danielle is speaking about on Friday afternoon is also at the heart of POGO’s work: how the revolving door between government and industry amounts to legalized corruption, and how that affects so many Americans.

The stakes for this kind of corruption are so much higher than just money changing hands. At the “Unrig” summit, Danielle is shining light on two situations where corruption is a matter of life and death.

First, when the story broke last fall of how the Drug Enforcement Administration’s efforts to stop the spread of the opioid epidemic by cracking down on drug distribution companies were stymied by the swamp, we knew exactly what we were looking at. The opioid crisis has been fueled for decades by legalized corruption created by the revolving door between the government—particularly the DEA and the Food and Drug Administration (FDA)—and drug companies, where former DEA officials essentially teach drug companies how to not get caught flouting the law and putting profits over public health. This goes beyond just DEA officials, however. It implicates a former deputy U.S. attorney general, and it implicates the system by which the FDA gets and spends the majority of its funding for its work: through legally required negotiations with drug company representatives rather than through Congressional appropriations of taxpayer funds. Which begs the question: when there’s codified industry control over the agency charged with making sure drugs prescribed in the U.S. are safe, can we trust that our government is really working in our interest?

None of this influence-peddling is illegal. But it is all corrupt.

Then, there’s the story of the birth control pill Yaz. When a science advisory committee at the FDA determined that the pill was unsafe and had been causing fatal blood clots in 10 times more women than in those who take other birth control pills, that should’ve resulted in the drug being pulled from the shelves. Instead, the committee voted to approve Yaz, by a margin of four votes. As a POGO investigation found, four members of the committee had financial conflicts of interest—that is, financial ties to the drug industry—that they had not disclosed to the public at the committee hearing.

Legalized corruption is going on across the government.

At the Pentagon, it’s defense contractors going through the revolving door, in and out of government, incentivizing exorbitant spending on unproven weapons systems and endless wars. And in the halls of Congress, it’s the stream of former Members of Congress and their staffs becoming lobbyists, helping ensure our laws get weaker rather than stronger, protecting special interests rather than the public interest.

POGO has been working on this for years. And while we’ve helped make some significant reforms—like getting the FDA to require science advisors to disclose their financial conflicts of interest, and the Pentagon to track officials who go through the revolving door—those are just scratching the surface. And transparency just isn’t enough.

At the Unrig Summit, Danielle is calling on participants and audience members to use their voices to demand a stop to corruption. To demand that their elected officials make it a priority to push anti-corruption reforms further, and to stop the revolving door to agencies across government. It’s time to tell Congress that we need new and better solutions to “unrig the system.” American lives are at stake.

Here are POGO’s recommendations for how Congress should work to increase transparency of outside influence on the government.

Recommendations:

  • Let the public see where employees go after they leave federal agencies. Congress should require former agency employees to enter into binding revolving door exit plans that set forth the programs and projects from which they are banned from working. Moreover, any individuals contacting the agency they used to work for should be required to disclose their previous title and responsibilities. Agencies should post all exit plans and disclosure statements online shortly after receiving them.
  • Expand lobbying disclosure requirements. Congress should require all individuals outside the government, not just agency alumni, to file a disclosure statement whenever they communicate with or appear before an agency official to discuss agency business, including: regulations, rules, policymaking, federal funds, examinations, and enforcement actions. Congress should require them to identify their employer or client and with whom they met, and to explain the communication in detail.
  • Extend the cooling off periods for employees who enter and leave government. Congress should require employees who leave federal agencies to wait at least five years before contacting their former agency on behalf of anyone to discuss agency business, including: regulations, rules, policymaking, federal funds, examinations, and enforcement matters. In addition, Congress should require employees who leave federal agencies to wait at least two years before taking a job with any firm they interacted with on agency business within a year prior to their departure.
By: Emma Stodder
Social Media Manager, POGO

Emma Stodder Emma Stodder is the Social Media Manager at the Project On Government Oversight.

Topics: Open Government

Related Content: Ethics

Authors: Emma Stodder

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