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Biden Signs New Ethics Rules In First Days As President

NOEL KING, HOST:

On his way out of office, former President Trump rescinded one of his own ethics rules. It was an executive order that limited lobbying by people who'd worked in his government. In one of his first acts in office, President Biden signed a bunch of new ethics rules. He says the point is to restore trust in the government.

Norm Eisen was the White House ethics czar in the early years of the Obama administration, and he wrote that administration's ethical guidelines. Good morning, sir.

NORM EISEN: Good morning, Noel.

KING: You have said - you have written that President Biden's ethical guidelines are even stronger than President Obama's, which you wrote. So what are they? What makes them stronger?

EISEN: Well, they're not just guidelines, they are binding rules. And they toughen the restrictions on the revolving door coming into government and going out of government. Coming into government, they build back what Obama had, which Trump had blasted loopholes in. And then they add new provisions, like limits on foreign agents coming into government. You can't get golden parachutes from your former employer.

And they toughen the revolving door going out of government as well, Noel, adding new restrictions there, also on foreign agents and on shadow lobbying, the loopholes that people were using to influence government after they left. So as proud as we were of the Obama rules - and President Obama credits our work together for giving him a scandal-free administration - these new rules are better.

KING: How are these rules enforced?

EISEN: Excellent question - what we do with the revolving-door rules is apply them by executive order. The model is the Obama executive order. So rather than going through Congress, the president himself uses his power to sign it into law as an executive order for the executive branch. Even Trump felt constrained, although he created all kinds of loopholes. And then he threw the rules out on his last day in office, so all of his people can run amok now that the administration is over. But even Trump felt obliged to have one of these executive orders.

And then, we require everyone who is bound by the rules - all the new political appointees - to sign a legally enforceable pledge that is part of the executive order. So they're bound by it, both by federal law and also contract by...

KING: It's legally enforceable. OK.

EISEN: ...Signing this pledge.

KING: Why does every new administration get to decide this? Why can't we just have permanent laws that say, be ethical in the following fashion?

EISEN: We do. There is a raft of sometimes confusing laws, and we build on top of these laws. We did that in the Obama executive order. Biden does it again here. For example, senior government employees can't, under federal law, have communications back with the agency where they worked. We extended that rule, though. We didn't think it was tough enough in Obama. We extended it from one year after you leave to two years. Trump rolled it back to one year. Now it's gone altogether 'cause he erased his rules. Biden puts it back up to two years and toughens it by saying, not only can't you go back to your agency, you can't talk to your peers in the White House either for two years after you go.

So we lay on top of federal law. But some of these rules should be written into federal law, and some will be by the new H.R. 1. So we need tough rules in the statutes as well.

KING: OK. Joe Biden's family has some potential conflicts. His son-in-law is an executive with a health care company that has lobbied the government. He has family members affiliated with two Biden foundations that could receive financial contributions. And then, Hunter Biden is the subject of a Department of Justice tax investigation. Do these rules apply to family members or just to people in the administration?

EISEN: Well, if the family members were to come into the administration, Noel, they would be bound by these rules. But these rules are not focused on family members since we're not expecting them to join. So instead, there'll be additional limitations that President Biden has announced that he'll use to control any conflicts that could arise there.

KING: Norm Eisen of the Brookings Institution, thank you.

EISEN: Thanks, Noel. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.