Ahead of Senate Confirmation Hearing on “Walking Conflict of Interest” Nominee, Rep. Huffman Introduces New Bill to Strengthen Executive Branch Ethics Laws

Washington, D.C.-  New legislation introduced today by Rep. Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael) will strengthen ethical standards for political appointees in the executive branch, closing loopholes and elevating into federal law standards that are currently up to the President to determine and enforce. The Executive Appointee Ethics Improvement Act would give the force of law to the current five-year revolving door lobbying ban, compel public disclosure any time that an executive branch official is granted a waiver from complying with that ban, and put in place strict restrictions for former lobbyists selected for top federal agency positions. 


 The introduction of the Executive Appointee Ethics Improvement Act comes on the eve of a confirmation hearing for David Bernhardt, Donald Trump’s nominee for the position of Deputy Secretary of the Interior. The hearing will be held at the Senate Environment and Natural Resources Committee, whose Ranking Democrat Maria Cantwell (D-WA) has asked Bernhardt to explain how he will avoid either an actual conflict of interest or the appearance of one given how many of his legal and lobbying clients have business before the department. Among many other examples, Bernhardt has served as the lobbying and legal representative for the Westlands Water District and sued the Department of the Interior in that capacity, has worked for the U.S. subsidiary of a Russian-American oligarch’s oil conglomerate, and has lobbied on behalf of Cadiz, Inc, a groundwater storage company whose federal approvals were just granted by the Interior Department.

 The Executive Appointee Ethics Improvement Act would ensure that Mr. Bernhardt, and other federal appointees with similar conflicts of interest, would be legally prohibited from taking any official action on an issue on which he formerly lobbied. In addition, it would ensure that if former lobbyists are appointed to a high-ranking position, any ethics waivers they receive must be made public. The Trump administration, by contrast, has kept these waivers secret, making restrictions on former lobbyists within the administration meaningless in practice.

 “President Trump promised to ‘drain the swamp’ but has instead stocked his cabinet with dozens of conflict-ridden alligators of lobbying and industry,” said Rep. Huffman. “From Rex Tillerson to Wilbur Ross, it’s clear that the President will allow special interests to run wild. Congress must hold the executive branch accountable, and the law should not allow a ‘walking conflict of interest’ like David Bernhardt to be directly involved in agency decisions that he was just paid by industry, as a lobbyist and lawyer, to influence. The Executive Appointee Ethics Improvement Act would shine a light on troubling conflicts of interest in the Administration, take key steps to stop the revolving door, and help ensure political appointees can’t use their public role for their own private financial gain.”  

 “I am proud to support your Executive Appointee Ethics Act,” said Danielle Brian, the Executive Director of The Project on Government Oversight. “This bill will codify many of the best practices from the ethics executive orders implemented by Presidents Trump, Obama, and Clinton. Those orders had strong provisions extending bans on lobbying and prohibiting certain conflicts of interest for appointees entering and leaving the government. Codifying those orders would add continuity between administrations and prevent special interests from steering White House and agency policies, programs, and spending.” 

 “The unprecedented ethical lapses in the Trump administration multiply every day, and we commend Congressman Huffman for introducing the Executive Appointee Ethics Improvement Act,” said Aaron Scherb, Common Cause’s director of legislative affairs. “This common-sense legislation would help prevent administration officials who are former lobbyists, consultants, or ‘special advisers’ from using their positions in government to line their pockets, which has become common practice in this administration. Common Cause’s recently-released ‘State of the Swamp’ report details many examples of individuals personally profiting from their role in government and highlights 100+ examples of this administration’s ethical shortcomings in its first 100 days.”

 The Executive Appointee Ethics Improvement Act codifies a number of proposals called for by President Trump during his campaign and includes other good-government reforms as well, including:

  • 5 Year Lobbying Ban – Codifies President Trump’s five-year lobbying ban on former appointees and requires that any waivers to the ban are published in the Federal Register and accompanied by a detailed description of the reasons the waiver was provided. Current law includes a limited two-year lobbying ban with certain waiver authority;
  • 2 Year Cooling Off Period– Increases from one year to two years the existing “cooling off period” prohibiting communication between former appointees and any officer or employee of the department or agency in which they served;
  • Permanent Ban on Former Appointees Working for any Foreign Government or Foreign Political Party– Prohibits a former appointee from registering to lobby on behalf of a foreign government or foreign political party;
  • Revolving Door Ban—All Appointees Entering Government – Prohibits for two years appointees from participating in any matter that is directly or substantially related to a former employer or former clients, including regulations or contracts; and
  • Revolving Door Ban—Lobbyists Entering Government – Prohibits individuals who were a registered lobbyist or engaged in lobbying activities during any time two years prior to appointment from participating in any matter on which they lobbied or from seeking employment with an executive agency they lobbied for two years.