TCS Daily

Avoiding Conflict of Interest, or Conflicting Ideas?

By Dr. Henry I. Miller and Jeff Stier - March 6, 2009 12:00 AM

In order to avoid conflicts of interest, President Obama promised repeatedly that he would not appoint lobbyists to positions in his administration, and one of his first actions in office was to issue an executive order forbidding executive branch employees from working in an agency or on a program for which they have lobbied during the previous two years.

It's a commitment that owes more to rhetoric than reality -- brass-knuckle politics under the guise of integrity in government. The president already has violated both the letter and the spirit of his pledge. A politician breaking campaign promises? So what else is new, right? But in government, personnel choices are policy, and policy is what spells the difference between the success or failure of individual citizens and the nation. The president's choices will ensure that (left-wing) politics trumps good government - and will have dire consequences for the nation's economy and the well-being of consumers.

Consider Bill Corr, the deputy secretary-designate of Health and Human Services. He is currently Executive Director of the Campaign for Tobacco Free Kids (CFTFK), which (despite its name), partnered with tobacco behemoth Altria to draft the legislation that would give FDA the authority to regulate tobacco. The bill is widely expected to pass this year -- and because the FDA is part of HHS, Corr would be in an influential position as the FDA decides how to implement its new authority. For example, regulators would have to decide whether to allow "harm reduction" claims for smokeless tobacco, which helps smokers reduce the risk of tobacco use. This is a potentially useful approach that Corr's organization vigorously opposed under his leadership.

In spite of President Obama's commitment "to change the way Washington does business and curb the influence of lobbyists on our government," he found a way around the rules: Mr. Corr would recuse himself from deliberations on tobacco policy. But as President Obama (himself a smoker) must surely know, cigarettes are the most preventable cause of death in this country. How could the deputy secretary of HHS not be allowed to address tobacco issues? That alone should disqualify him for the position.

Another former health lobbyist appointed to the top ranks of HHS is Mark B. Childress, the new chief of staff for the HHS secretary. There are at least a dozen others elsewhere in the administration, including former Goldman Sachs Group lobbyist Mark Patterson, the incoming chief of staff for the secretary of the treasury; and former Raytheon lobbyist William Lynn, the new deputy secretary of defense.

Apparently, President Obama is not trying to curb the influence of lobbyists - but only of lobbyists whose views don't gibe with those of the administration.

There is another, broader issue related to the presence of lobbyists in the administration - namely, the appointment to critical positions of people who have been "unofficial" lobbyists, both outside and within government agencies. Although many of the Obama appointments have not been official "registered lobbyists," unquestionably they have been activists and lobbyists by any reasonable definition. Tom Daschle, whose nomination as HHS secretary was withdrawn because of tax problems, is a perfect example. Since he left the senate, he has made millions as an influence-peddler and "policy advisor" to a wide variety of companies and organizations. He has received hundreds of thousands of dollars from the healthcare industry. Is he a lobbyist? Well, if he walks like a duck and quacks like a duck...

Another important question is whether government bureaucrats themselves may also be considered to be lobbyists of a sort. The late Milton Friedman observed that you can usually rely on individuals and institutions (including regulatory agencies) to act in their own self-interest - and to lobby for and adopt policies that will enhance it. In the case of regulators, their behavior is influenced in large part by the desire to stay out of trouble (which means not making waves or taking unpopular positions), and by the yearning for larger budgets and grander bureaucratic empires. A realistic goal would be not to ban former lobbyists from government, but to seek appointees who are smart and capable and willing to embrace the public interest.

Mr. Obama's choice to head the Environmental Protection Agency, Lisa Jackson, is not such a person. Most recently the head of New Jersey's environmental agency, she is a 16-year veteran of the EPA, where she developed some of the agency's most unscientific, wasteful, and dangerous regulations.

While at EPA, Ms. Jackson worked on Superfund (officially the Comprehensive Environmental Response, Compensation and Liability Act), an ongoing EPA program intended to clean up and reduce the risk of toxic-waste sites. It was originally conceived as a short-term project -- $1.6 billion over five years to clean up some 400 sites (by law, at least one per state and, not coincidentally, about one per congressional district). But it has grown into one of the nation's largest public works projects, with more than $30 billion spent on about 1,300 sites.

Various studies have attempted to evaluate the effect of Superfund's massive and costly cleanups, but the results are uncertain. In other words, even after the expenditure of tens of billions of dollars, no beneficial results have been demonstrable. On the other hand, Superfund projects have caused a great deal of harm: The risk of fatality to the average cleanup worker -- a dump-truck driver involved in a collision or a laborer run over by a bulldozer, for example -- is considerably larger than the cancer risks to individual residents that might result from exposures to unremediated sites.

With this history, we would argue that Ms. Jackson has been a lobbyist for the interests of the most radical, doctrinaire elements of the environmental community - and for the bureaucrats who defend and strive to expand the Superfund program. Are former lobbyists for the energy or chemical industry less suited than she to head a federal agency that has a sordid history of incompetence, duplicity and pandering to the most extreme factions of the environmental movement?

Why is all this important? Well, President Obama has said repeatedly that the revolving door between lobbying for special interests and positions in government is the cause of rampant conflicts of interest and corruption in Washington. We were promised change and greater transparency, but beneath the spin, we're seeing business as usual. We are reminded of Mr. Obama's remark during the campaign, "If you put lipstick on a pig, it's still a pig."

Henry Miller, a physician and fellow at Stanford University's Hoover Institution, was an official at the FDA from 1979 to 1994. He is the author of "To America's Health: A Proposal to Reform the FDA." Jeff Stier is an associate director of the American Council on Science and Health.

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