One of the ways that eroding norms can be reinforced is to codify them into law. Another way is to resuscitate their power in succeeding administrations.
This brings us to the Biden administration-to-be and how to interpret questions about possible ethical issues in new appointees. It did not take long for those questions to be raised. Over the Thanksgiving break, the New York Times reported on the links between Joe Biden’s incoming foreign policy team and a consulting firm named WestExec Advisors.
The firm was founded by the nominee for secretary of state, Antony Blinken, and possible defense secretary nominee Michèle Flournoy, among others. The links between WestExec and previous government service are not subtle. WestExec is a shortening of the West Wing and the Eisenhower Executive Office Building that houses most of the White House staff. The first thing one sees on the WestExec Advisors website is the motto “Bringing the Situation Room to the Boardroom” overlaying pictures of Flournoy and Blinken.
The Times’s Eric Lipton and Kenneth P. Vogel detail what they know about WestExec and their clients. According to Lipton and Vogel, the very existence of this firm raises questions: “They bring with them questions about whether they might favor or give special access to the companies they had worked with in the private sector. Those questions do not go away, ethics experts say, just because the officials cut their ties to their firms and clients, as the Biden transition team says its nominees will do.”
To address these questions, three fundamental realities need to be stipulated. The first is that even though the Trump administration made a mockery of ethics in the executive branch, subsequent administrations should not get a pass. One could plausibly argue that Trump’s success in 2016 rested on the widespread perception that the Beltway was an ethical quagmire that needed to be drained. Just because Trump did the opposite of that does not mean populists will not make a similar play in subsequent elections. Furthermore, there is the intrinsic value of having policymakers who appreciate the importance of ethics in dealing with, say, Saudi Arabia’s role in Yemen or Nike and Coca-Cola’s role in Xinjiang, China.
The second is that the career paths of foreign policy wonks have fundamentally shifted over the past two decades or so. It used to be the case that when national security officials left an administration, they would find a sinecure in a think tank or university center to bide their time. Before that, the Eastern establishment was sufficiently well off so that money was not a concern.
In the 21st-century ideas industry, there is simply more money to be made in strategic consultancies like WestExec. Blinken and Flournoy are merely following a trail blazed first by Henry Kissinger, Brent Scowcroft, Madeleine Albright, Sandy Berger, Condoleezza Rice, Stephen Hadley and Robert Gates.
The third is that it is not clear whether any laws can prevent this sort of thing. As the Times story notes, these strategic consultancies are in themselves a reaction to ethics legislation designed to ban direct forms of lobbying. Eliminate this option and I guarantee you a new ecosystem of firms will emerge that is designed to do similar tasks without violating the law.
So, what is to be done? A Biden official told the Times that Blinken and any other appointees “would leave the firms if they had not already done so, sell their ownership stakes and make ‘proper’ client disclosures.”
Divesting one’s holdings would be the single-most important step to assure observers of a commitment to acting ethically.
There is no perfect solution to this problem. Hiring consultants raises legitimate conflict-of-interest concerns, but not hiring them cuts into the bench strength of both parties.
It would be nice to see both parties construct a set of norms regarding this kind of employment in between government service. With the GOP too busy with producing as much hypocrisy as humanly possible, however, it is hard to be optimistic about the development of any new norms in this area.