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Analysis

A Closer Look at Ethics Reforms in HR 1, the For the People Act

(Illustration by POGO)

Yesterday, on the first day of the 116th Congress, a group of House Democrats introduced a sweeping reform bill aimed in part at creating and strengthening ethics systems for all three branches of government, and ensuring equal access to voting booths. This ambitious proposal, the “For the People Act,” includes many reforms that the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) has long supported.

For example, for years, POGO has advocated for stronger policies to ensure that high-level government officials going through the revolving door between government service and private industry do so in a way that protects government policies from undue industry influence. This bill would prohibit “golden parachute” incentive payments from private companies to former employees entering government service and would impose stricter limits on former contract procurement officers leaving government service. These reforms are common sense steps to ensure that those serving in government are doing so with the public, not their own wallets, in mind.

Acting in part on longstanding recommendations from civil society, the For the People Act would also strengthen the Office of Government Ethics (OGE), giving the director of the Office final approval over any executive branch recusals, exemptions, or waivers from ethics laws or regulations and requiring those waivers to be publicly posted on OGE’s website. This centralization of authority ensures consistent application of waivers and greatly increases transparency. Further, the bill would give OGE the power to investigate possible violations of ethics laws and the authority to issue administrative and legal remedies when an ethics violation has occurred, increasing the likelihood that those who violate ethics laws will be held accountable. Finally, the bill would limit the President’s ability to remove the director of OGE to only instances where there is cause for firing, allowing the director to truly serve independently.

Not only does the For the People Act address long-standing ethics concerns, it also addresses deficiencies with the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA). FARA requires all American citizens working to influence U.S. policy on behalf of foreign governments to register with the Department of Justice and report information about those lobbying efforts. However, POGO released a report in 2014 detailing routine failures to follow the law and systemic non-prosecution by the Department of Justice. The For the People Act would give the Department the authority to levy civil fines to punish offenders who do not properly comply with the law, increasing the likelihood that the Department would enforce the law.

And the bill doesn’t only reform the executive branch. In addition to the above reforms, the For the People Act would require the creation of a code of ethics that would apply to Supreme Court justices, the only category of judge not currently covered by a code of conduct. It would also strengthen ethics standards for Members of Congress, for example by prohibiting Members from serving on boards of for-profit entities.

The For the People Act has been a decidedly Democratic venture; however, many of the reforms contained in the bill are common-sense ethics reforms that should receive bipartisan support. If they don’t, it is less of a commentary on the need for ethics reforms across all sectors of government than it is indicative of the hyperpartisan time we are in.