House Democrats push for tougher oversight of regulators’ conflicts
A group of House Democrats has introduced a bill that would require federal officials to disclose any potential conflicts of interest before they implement significant changes in U.S. regulations.
The lawmakers said the legislation is intended to alert the public if those involved in the decisions, including the president and his top advisers, would personally profit from revising or replacing the rules.
“President Trump ran and campaigned on this idea of draining the swamp,” said the bill’s author, Rep. David Cicilline, D-R.I. “We see, in fact, he has filled the swamp with people who have deep business interests and may be using their positions in the government to advance their financial interests.”
Among those who would have to project how much they would personally benefit from any particular regulatory changes are members of the new deregulation teams Trump has installed at federal agencies. The groups are tasked with weakening or eliminating government rules found to be overly burdensome for businesses.
The Congress members cited a recent investigation by ProPublica and The New York Times revealing that members of these deregulation teams have deep industry ties and are reviewing regulations their previous employers sought to weaken or kill. Appointees include lawyers who represented businesses in cases against government regulators, staff members of political groups raising so-called dark money and employees of industry-funded organizations opposed to environmental rules. At least four were registered to lobby the agencies they now work for and at least two may be positioned to profit if certain regulations are undone.
Federal agencies have defended their deregulation teams, saying appointees are adhering to strict ethics rules and generally avoiding topics that would narrowly affect recent former employers. The Trump administration has said its deregulatory push is necessary because similar reviews of existing rules by past administrations were not rigorous enough.
Cicilline’s bill, co-sponsored by Reps. John Conyers, Raul Grijalva, Lloyd Doggett, Gerry Connolly and Peter DeFazio — all Democrats — would require “an assessment and quantification” of the conflicts of interest for any major regulatory action. The report would disclose any possible personal benefit for the president, his senior advisers and members of the deregulation teams, along with the heads of the agency issuing the rule, the Office of Management and Budget and the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.
Though ProPublica and the Times have identified nearly three dozen deregulation team members with potential conflicts, a full vetting of industry connections has been difficult because some agencies have declined to provide information about the appointees — in many cases, not even their names.
Cicilline was among a group of Congress members who wrote a letter to the White House in August calling on the administration to release the names of all deregulation team members as well as documents relating to their potential conflicts of interest.
He said they have received no response. “This sadly has become the practice of this administration to routinely ignore members of Congress. That’s very disturbing to me and other members,” Cicilline said.
The congressman does not yet have any Republican support for his legislation, which would be needed for it to pass. “One would hope that shining light on this would be a bipartisan issue,” Cicilline said. Members of the House Republican leadership didn’t immediately return requests for comment.
The deregulation teams are part of Trump’s push to cut red tape across government, and have created a new avenue of influence for industries trying to kill rules they say hurt profits, depress job creation and raise prices. Environmental, consumer and other liberal groups have argued such regulations protect the public, keeping drinking water clean and roads safe, for example.
Among the appointees are Byron Brown, who is a member of the deregulation task force at the Environmental Protection Agency. He is married to a senior government affairs manager for the Hess Corporation, an oil and gas company regulated by the EPA.
The agency has declined to say whether Brown or his wife own shares in Hess, though an agency ethics official said Brown had recused himself from evaluating regulations affecting the company. The agency declined to say whether Brown would also recuse himself from issues affecting the American Petroleum Institute, where his wife’s company is a member. The association has lobbied to ease Obama-era natural gas rules, complaining in a recent letter to Brown’s team about an “unprecedented level of federal regulatory actions targeting our industry.”
Before she led the deregulation team at the Department of Housing and Urban Development, Maren Kasper was a director at Roofstock, an online marketplace for investors in single-family rental properties. Financial disclosure records show that Kasper owned a stake in the company worth up to $50,000.
Changes at HUD could increase investor interest in rental homes, affecting a company like Roofstock. The agency, for example, oversees the federal government’s Section 8 subsidies program for low-income renters. Ethics officials allowed Kasper to keep her stake during her short tenure on the task force, but she pledged not to take actions that would affect the company.
This story was first published Oct. 11, 2017, by ProPublica.
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