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Biden to ban special bonuses for appointees, expand lobbying prohibitions in new ethics rules

President-elect Joe Biden and members of his family volunteer in Philadelphia during the Martin Luther King Day holiday on Monday.
President-elect Joe Biden and members of his family volunteer in Philadelphia during the Martin Luther King Day holiday on Monday. (Demetrius Freeman/The Washington Post)
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President-elect Joe Biden will ban his senior presidential appointees from accepting special bonuses akin to “golden parachutes” from former employers for joining the government, while putting in place other expanded revolving-door restrictions in his first days in office.

The new ethics rules, which were described by transition officials who spoke on the condition of anonymity because the draft executive order is not public, will in some ways go beyond the guidelines for senior appointees that were put in place by the Trump and Obama administrations.

The biggest shift is the new rule that will ban incoming officials from receiving compensation from their previous employer for taking a government job, a practice that has been a flash point for government reform advocates and Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.). Under the Biden program, appointees would still be able to accelerate vesting for compensation they have already earned.

For departing administration employees, the Biden rules create a prohibition on lobbying the administration for at least the length of Biden’s term and add a one-year restriction on assisting lobbying efforts.

That is an effort to crack down on lucrative “shadow lobbying” jobs, in which former officials go to work at law firms to help guide lobbyists without making contact with government officials themselves.

Existing law prevents senior appointees from appearing before their former agency for one year after leaving office, even in a non-lobbying capacity. Under the Biden rules, that prohibition will be extended to two years and include contact with senior White House officials.

“This is the boldest and most ambitious presidential ethics plan ever launched by an administration of either party,” said Norm Eisen, who drafted the ethics plans for the Obama administration in his first term. “My take is that it is a vast improvement on Trump and a significant step forward on our Obama pledge in a number of respects.”

For people coming to the government from the private sector, Biden will reimpose a ban on lobbyists going to work for agencies they had recently lobbied, unless they get a waiver from the White House counsel.

President Trump had removed that restriction when he came into office. Biden will also impose restrictions on registered foreign agents who seek jobs in the administration and will ban former officials from working as foreign agents right after they leave office.

The Biden executive order is expected to be signed by the incoming president in his first days in office. Incoming senior employees will be asked to sign a pledge that will also include a new preamble laying out some of Biden’s goals for the administration.

The preamble will ask officials to commit to acting in the public interest and to not do anything that would create the appearance that they used government service for private gain after they leave office, the officials said.

Appointees will also be asked to uphold the independence of law enforcement and avoid any improper influence with prosecutorial decisions at the Justice Department, a reference to the decision by Trump to frequently apply public pressure on prosecutorial decision-making, which Biden condemned during the campaign.

Transition officials said Biden will expect appointees to abide by the preamble guidelines, and failure to do so could result in employment actions.

The executive order on ethics will not address the issue of potential family conflicts of interest, which Biden spoke about on the campaign trail and after his election.

Biden has several family members involved in businesses that have potential interests in federal policy, including his son-in-law and campaign adviser Howard Krein, who helps to run a health-care start-up, and his brother-in-law John T. Owens, who owns a Delaware-based telemedicine company that markets itself as a solution amid pandemic restrictions, with medical second-opinion operations in Europe and Asia.

Biden’s son, Hunter Biden, who previously worked for foreign companies and is facing a tax investigation by the Justice Department, has pledged not to work for foreign-owned companies during his father’s presidency, according to his attorney.

“My son, my family, will not be involved in any business, any enterprise that is in conflict with or appears to be in conflict,” the president-elect told CNN in December.

A person familiar with the transition planning said that the executive order applies to political appointees and that no Biden family members will be appointed to the administration.

Biden will prohibit his family members from working for or serving on the board of majority foreign-owned companies, the person familiar with the plans said. The administration will also put in place internal procedures to make sure no private-sector activities by family members create even the appearance of a conflict of interest, the person said.

Concern about potential family conflicts extends to other senior members of Biden’s incoming White House staff. Incoming White House counselor Steve Ricchetti has potential family conflicts; his brother, Jeff Ricchetti, is a registered lobbyist whose business has been booming since Biden secured the nomination.

Jeff Ricchetti registered to lobby for at least eight new clients since Biden secured the nomination, compared with just six new clients in the previous eight years, according to public disclosures. They include the software firm Applied Materials, which has listed issues related to U.S.-China relations as its lobbying need, several pharmaceutical companies and Amazon, which hired Ricchetti in December. (Amazon founder and chief executive Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

Steve Ricchetti has an agreement with his brother not to discuss the lobbying work, according to a person familiar with the arrangement who was not cleared to speak publicly, and existing government ethics rules prohibit the disclosure of nonpublic information by senior officials.

Jeff Ricchetti did not respond to previous requests for comment.

The Biden executive order will clarify the procedures for granting waivers to the bans on registered lobbyists or foreign agents working in government, the officials said. Under the new language, lobbying work for a nonprofit corporation is now expressly recognized as a possible factor in granting a waiver.

Such language has been sought by liberals who said President Barack Obama erred by treating environmental and public-interest lobbyists in largely the same way as the lobbyists of for-profit corporations.

Under the incoming Biden rules, any waiver to allow a recent lobbyist or foreign agent to serve in the administration would have to be publicly released within 10 days of being granted, the officials said.