Is there a point where government ethics rules prevent government officials from doing their jobs?
It seems like a silly question. On its face ethics is virtue – you can never have too much. Our government is a global model because bribery, blackmail and unethical government conduct are unacceptable legally, morally and politically. This is part of our shared culture and belief in “truth, justice and the American way.”
But as each new administration in Washington tries to outdo its predecessor with more stringent ethics rules, I am seeing how these zero-tolerance policies are hurting good government, discouraging qualified people from government service and even hampering business.
Americans who take senior jobs in any administration are sacrificing income and privacy simply to serve their country. The income disclosure rules, vetting and confirmation process are big barriers so that increasing numbers of qualified Americans are refusing to serve in Washington.
Those who do choose to make the sacrifice of government service do so under serious constraints. Every action is subject to press and congressional scrutiny as well as a host of confusing laws. They also have to remember that with minor exceptions, every email and document they write is subject to review and publication by the press under the Freedom of Information Act. How can top administration executives make good decisions based on candid and honest advice if every keystroke of their advisers, including drafts and emails, is subject to later publication?
The Obama administration, which is admirable in its intent to be as ethical as possible, is taking government ethics to a rather absurd level that is definitely not in our national interest.
The administration announced that no registered lobbyist could serve in any capacity in government. Immediately this precluded many thousands of highly qualified experts from volunteering to serve on government advisory committees that provide valuable private sector input into policymaking. One such committee, which advises the administration on trade policies affecting virtually every American industry, lost an entire knowledge base of people who could have helped meet our stated goal of doubling exports in five years.
Consider also the formal reprimand the administration gave to Andrew McLaughlin, the U.S. deputy chief technology officer. The highly-respected McLaughlin, Google’s former head of public policy, was reprimanded for exchanging emails with Google executives on “net neutrality.” Google is a great American company and is entitled to advocate its well-known positions.
Google’s and the administration’s positions on net neutrality are already public. And McLaughlin was even chastised for emailing Internet creator and Presidential Medal of Freedom winner Dr. Vincent Cerf. Shouldn’t the White House be asking for advice from the “Father of the Internet,” no matter whom he works for or what the questioner’s prior job was? Barring consultation is absurd.
Or consider the rules that block administration officials from participating in the major industry events that help American businesses, create jobs and can help us meet the president's goal of doubling exports in five years. The International CES, a trade show we own and produce, is a great example of how ethics rules hurt our efforts to facilitate U.S. business.
The 2,500 CES exhibitors are mostly small American companies that use the CES to sell goods worldwide, and this low-cost event saves them the cost of having to travel and exhibit overseas. Our event also attracts government leaders from around the world – which helps the importance of the event and gets us more overseas buyers.
Yet, the administration’s ethics rules resulted in a tiny U.S. executive branch delegation attending the event and even the absurd situation of a commissioner of the Federal Communications Commission standing on the perimeter of our reception and dinner for our foreign government guests. He was not legally allowed to accept our drinks or food, so he stood on the edge of the event to meet his global counterparts. Our own government rules now bar our top political officials from helping us host and attract international business and government leaders.
Moreover, we couldn’t even get a White House welcome letter for our 24,000 international visitors. These business guests spend hundreds of millions of dollars in the United States and buy billions of dollars of goods and services from American companies, yet our ethics climate has created White House fear that helping American organizations do business is somehow a tainted activity.
Compare this to our German competitor trade shows. German Chancellor Angela Merkel attends our competitors’ events to welcome international VIPs and host a dinner.
Our government cannot and should not distance itself from American business – especially when we need to work together to attract and host international buyers. While Commerce Department staff is eager and helpful, the top level political people are increasingly reluctant and nervous about doing anything that appears to be helpful to American business.
It’s not enough that of the major developed countries, we are the least friendly to business travelers and burden them with cumbersome visa policies. This lack of a welcome mat hurts our efforts to promote trade and exports by and for American companies. It’s no wonder that the US hosts few major international events.
Our nation has to rethink its approach. American businesses create American jobs and our government cannot refuse to embrace American business in the name of ethics.
Gary Shapiro is president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association (CEA), the U.S. trade association representing some 2,000 consumer electronics companies.