Revolving door: Biden ethics waivers on track to surpass Trump tally, watchdog says

Only three agencies in the Biden administration have not granted ethics exemptions, compared to eight under the Trump administration.
U.S. President Joe Biden delivers remarks during an event on the South Lawn of the White House August 5, 2021 in Washington, DC.

After just over a year in office, the Biden administration is on track to surpass its predecessor in the number of ethics waivers granted for political appointees, according to tracking by a watchdog group.

Protect the Public's Trust (PPT) released a report Wednesday which found that the Biden administration has already granted 50 federal ethics waivers, more than two-thirds the amount granted by the Trump administration over four years.

Waivers are exemptions from certain federal ethics law provisions that are granted to government employees who have had previous experience working or advocating for special interests.

The waivers from Biden's ethics pledge are posted on the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) website, whereas other waivers and impartiality decisions are within the federal agencies themselves and must be obtained via Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) requests.

PPT submitted FOIA requests to 19 agencies in June 2021, seeking ethics waivers, impartiality decisions, and other guidance provided to exempt political appointees from federal law ethics obligations and the Biden ethics pledge.

The Departments of Agriculture, Energy, Health and Human Services, Justice, State, and Transportation, and the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission have either not responded or have yet to provide records that OGE indicates exist.

PPT noted that ethics exemptions granted for the ethics pledge generally last two years, but impartiality decisions only last a year. Thus, the documents might not be made available before the exemptions expire.

According to the PPT report, the issue with this is that "key details regarding the extent, scope, and ethics officials' justifications are available only in the actual impartiality decision document. If the intent of FOIA is to provide sunshine, this is certainly not being achieved by these agencies' inability or unwillingness to provide records."

As a result, PPT has filed a FOIA lawsuit against HHS, since it failed to provide waivers or impartiality decisions that were granted to Secretary Xavier Becerra, Assistant Secretary for Health Rachel Levine, Administrator for the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services Chiquita Brooks-LaSure, and Assistant Secretary for Mental Health and Substance Abuse Disorders Miriam Delphin-Rittmon.

PPT announced on Wednesday that it filed another lawsuit against the Transportation Department since it has not produced documents related to their FOIA request form June 2, 2021, regarding Secretary Pete Buttigieg.

According to a waiver tracking project during the Trump administration, 73 waivers and impartiality decisions were granted through October 2019, when the project stopped collecting data. More than 60% of these were granted to officials in the White House and the Departments of Justice and State.

However, under the Biden administration, just slightly more than 20% of waivers and impartiality decisions were granted for those departments.

According to available data, 11 executive branch agencies under Biden have already exceeded the number of waivers and impartiality decisions that were granted under Trump.

Only three agencies in the Biden administration have not granted ethics exemptions, compared to eight under the Trump administration. In other words, just 14% of federal agencies are currently fully adhering to ethics obligations, compared to 38% under Trump.

"Even more disconcerting is the fact that this trend is happening at the agency level where the most significant decisions of the federal government are typically made," the report reads. "The result has been senior appointees working with their former employers, clients, and on otherwise prohibited matters at an increasing rate."

Director of Protect the Public's Trust, Michael Chamberlain, said in a statement, "Few images embody D.C.'s reputation as 'The Swamp' more than the revolving door. One would think federal agencies would be anxious to clear the air regarding decisions involving waivers but Protect the Public's Trust's experience has not borne that out.

"While the current administration touts itself as the 'most ethically vigorous administration in history,' in some areas the revolving door seems to be spinning more quickly than ever. PPT will continue to update the Ethics Waiver Tracker as part of our effort to bring sunshine to 'The Swamp.'"

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.