In 2021, Let’s Set the Bar Higher for Our Government

January 29, 2020 | 10:00 am
Flazingo Photos/Flickr
Genna Reed
Former Director of Policy Analysis

A new Union of Concerned Scientists report released today provides recommendations for the next administration on how to restore science in policymaking. One element of ensuring independent science informs decisions is blocking opportunities for political interference and undue influence.

The U.S. Constitution defined government to have checks and balances to temper the power held by any one arm, and to tamp down the corruption among elected officials. The federal government works best when the interests of the public are considered before any personal financial interests, forces that are always at play in rooms full of powerful people. This occurs under republican or democratic administrations, but the Trump administration has taken the presence of conflicts of interest and abandonment of ethical principles to new lows. The president has been impeached for the abuse of power (using the office for personal gain) and obstructing Congress. Several confirmed appointments for federal agencies have resigned in the wake of conflicts or other ethical breaches, notably Environmental Protection Agency’s Scott Pruitt, Department of Interior’s Ryan Zinke, Department of Health and Human Services’ Tom Price, Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s Brenda Fitzgerald, and Department of Labor’s Alexander Acosta. And, some nominated individuals never made it through the confirmation process because of conflicts that were deemed unacceptable to members of the Senate, including David Dourson (nominated as chief of EPA’s Office of Chemical Safety and Pollution Prevention) and Barry Myers (nominated to lead National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration). Many other conflicted individuals are still in powerful positions at the agencies that should be protecting public health and the environment, but are really just protecting private interests.

There has been some incredible oversight from agency inspector generals and Congress, but the problems we’re seeing need to be stopped before they even crop up. Some key recommendations from the report on how the President can lead the way in ensuring the removal or management of conflicts of interest are:

  • During the next presidential term, our president should let science, not political interests be their guide. The president should ensure that all federal officials, including the office of the president itself, have access to the best scientific advice from the very start of the next administration.
  • They should appoint a widely respected scientist to the role of science advisor and to direct the Office of Science and Technology Policy (OSTP) which should play an active role in the administration from the start. For example, The OSTP should direct agencies to develop clear guidance for using peer review in scientific assessments and ensure that agencies apply the guidance consistently. This guidance should require the COI disclosure of peer reviewers and make comments publicly available, while protecting anonymity.
  • The president should instruct the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) to provide clear guidelines about conflicts of interest at agencies, and on federal advisory committees and agency peer review boards. It should clearly define conflicts and work with agencies to better enforce recusals from decisions for which there would be a clear conflict.
  • The administration should work with federal agencies to improve conflict-of-interest policies for political appointees. This should include ensuring that nominees for appointments are highly qualified and vetted to avoid conflicts of interest. Further, in order to protect against the revolving door, political appointees should be barred from lobbying their agencies for a minimum of five years after leaving government service.

Corruption in government is a rot that if ignored threatens the viability of a healthy democracy. For what power do we have when our government is bought and paid for by corporate interests? There has been significant erosion of trust in our government’s ability to protect us, but there are clear, feasible solutions that the next administration can institute to begin to repair the damage that has been done.

Our new report provides a roadmap for the next administration. If nothing else, I hope it reminds us all that ethical breaches around every corner and a government beholden to private interests is not the norm. By strengthening laws already in the books and putting in place new infrastructure that can identify and deal with conflicts before they manifest themselves, we can work toward a fully functional, fair, just, and transparent government that works for all of us, not the rich and powerful few.