To resist authoritarian threats, ethical standards must be stronger – POLITICO

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 failed for the second time in five years.

The fact that she was able to resume her role as a candidate in the second round for the presidency, not to mention obtaining almost a sufficient number of votes, attests to a disturbing fact: in France, and elsewhere, the threat of the movements right-wing populists go up – don’t back down.

Admittedly, no single factor can fully explain the growing populist appeal, but growing concerns about political corruption across the world have certainly played a part. Indeed, even if their interest in the issue is far from genuine, right-wing populist politicians have proven particularly adept at capitalizing on the growing sense that governments work more for private interests than for ordinary people.

And those who claim to be determined to resist them must now upgrade to fight back.

At the end of April, we spoke with European lawmakers and civil society groups who watched with concern as the revolving door between the governing institutions of the European Union accelerated with US corporations and autocratic governments. Based on observations from our work here in the United States, we then offered suggestions on how they could strengthen ethical standards at home.

While the specifics of policies may, of course, differ depending on the regional context, the principles that guide ethics reform should be the same everywhere. And first, legislators must recognize that perceptions are the key to a successful ethics program. If a practice plausibly erodes trust in government – ​​by giving the impression that public officials can act in the interest of personal or private gain and not the public, for example – the practice should be prohibited, even if, in some cases, it may be harmless.

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

Consider, for example, the current effort to curb trade in US Congressional stocks. After an initial attempt to control congressional insider trading by collecting and releasing annual and periodic financial statements for hundreds of lawmakers, staffers, and their wives, which failed entirely to end to trade scandals, Congress has now turned to a more promising strategy: to ban 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 far less paperwork and oversight, leaving less room for error and making meaningful enforcement much easier.

The same principle can be applied to the revolving door. Rather than placing narrow limits on what a former public servant can work on while working in a regulated company – and asking the public to trust that public servant’s moral integrity or the ability of a system of embattled ethics to enforce the rules – lawmakers should simply ban them from working there for a set period of time.

In addition, ethics rules should be as comprehensive as possible to encompass all positions of public trust and many ways companies buy influence. This may seem relatively simple, but it is worth pointing out. In the past year alone, illogical and unfair loopholes about who must uphold the fundamental principles of US ethics law have been the root of multiple scandals, including at the Federal Reserve.

In another example, it’s a reasonable, albeit unproven, inference that senior White House adviser Anita Dunn accepted a lower salary to avoid ethics disclosure rules — in substance, by purchasing his right to secrecy at a rate of approximately $4,000 per month. This raises serious concerns about whether the Ethics Act as written acts as a meaningful check on the named wealthy.

Likewise, the failure of the current system to recognize or restrict many of the strategies corporations employ to buy influence has helped fuel the growing sense that government results are hopelessly rigged. For the most part, the existing rules only impose restrictions on activities that fall under the narrow legal definition of lobbying, leaving many other practices untouched – such as when former officials order subordinates to know who and how to lobby. on their former agencies, or when corporations subsidize think tanks. to produce favorable research.

Ironically, lobbying is both too limited and too broad a lens to understand and regulate political influence. Consider that under the current rules, lobbyists who advocate for the passage of, say, a suffrage bill while working in a public interest organization, may face to more restrictions when stepping into government office than someone who ran an advocacy strategy for Exxon Mobil without registering for hall.

This brings us to our next principle: ethics rules should distinguish between advocacy on behalf of for-profit entities – as well as those working primarily to advance their interests – and all other forms of advocacy. That the two are not equivalent is just common sense. And while advocacy, as individuals or in concert, is essential to democratic government, allowing corporations to dip into their deep pockets for unfair advantage threatens it.

Each of these principles, however, will not be worth much without the necessary infrastructure to ensure the rapid and solid application of the rules of ethics. Simply put, ethics offices must have sufficient resources to detect and investigate violations. They must also have the independence to take on powerful actors and win — that is, those whom ethics officers investigate should not have the power to fire them.

In the meantime, whether in the form of heavier fines, revocation of professional licenses or other strategies, penalties must be severe enough to deter non-compliance. Otherwise, the rules carefully crafted by lawmakers will become little more than a joke.

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

Rules written according to these principles would radically transform government activities around the world and control those who seek to influence government.

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