The Federal Revolving Door – Can it Ever be Closed?

Ryan Greenstein is a staff writer for Brief Policy Perspectives and a first-year MPA student.

The public has often looked upon the government’s revolving door, a metaphor for how often elected officials and regulators transition between their government roles and private industry positions, as a fault within our system. Though generally unpopular with the public, there is a debate to be had over whether the revolving door is beneficial or not for policymaking purposes. The revolving door is often used during campaigns to exhibit how a candidate plans to “fix” the federal government. On his first day in office, President Biden signed an executive order with a “revolving door ban” that would ban appointees from lobbying the administration within two years of leaving their government position. President Obama instituted a similar two-year ban and President Trump issued an executive order banning appointees from lobbying five years after their role in the administration, though both Presidents’ orders were heavily criticized as full of loopholes and President Trump revoked his own ethics order on his last day in office. Congress has struggled with the same revolving door challenges. In the last four Congresses, almost half of all former members have gone to work at a lobbying firm. Legislation has even been introduced in the past two Congresses to institute a lifetime ban on former members of Congress from ever working as federal lobbyists, though the bill is not expected to move forward into law. 

Similarly, regulators and other non-elected officials are often enticed by the revolving door. The past three Secretaries of Defense all were employed or on the boards of major military contractors when appointed. On the staff level, rotation between the private and public sectors is frequent as well as public servants work closely with their private counterparts. Whether its regulators at the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office leaving to work in law firms that specialize in patent applications or Food and Drug Administration (FDA) scientists leaving for lucrative pharmaceutical industry positions, the federal revolving door is firmly open and known in government circles. Even senior staff in the House of Representatives became eligible for a higher salary cap this year in an attempt to retain experts from leaving for the private sector’s more attractive wages. 

Should we keep the revolving door open?

Unfortunately, though the revolving door is clearly unpopular with voters, there is not as much academic research on the pros and cons of the revolving door. Most public perception of the issue originates from perceived corruption from elected officials who can increase their salary by over 1,400% overnight after they leave office. But for regulators and career public servants, there is an argument to be made that the revolving door serves as an opportunity for the federal government to capitalize on the expertise and resources of private industry. After all, who else would know more about how a regulation could impact an industry than individual an with experience in that industry? Having individuals in the industry who already understand the approval process for new drugs can have a positive public health impact. Former FDA staff who better understand the approval process will help new innovative medications be approved and used by patients in a smoother process than someone who did not know the FDA’s inner workings. In a New York Times article following President Biden’s nomination of Dr. Robert Califf to lead the FDA after several years in academia and the industry, it was theorized that the White House may not have been able to find any qualified candidates to lead the agency without some industry connections, despite revolving door criticism from Senators opposed to the nomination.  

There has also been research showing that regulators passing through the revolving door may be tougher on potential employers. Despite perspectives that regulators may practice lax enforcement against corporations they’d like to work for, several researchers have found evidence that corporations hire the toughest regulators who have showcased the most talent in their role. Exchanging high-quality talent between sectors can continue to strengthen the qualities of both. In one study of Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) regulators, the most aggressive SEC attorneys were more likely to be hired by a private firm for simply being efficient. As author Ed deHaan stated: 

“The law firms hire the best people from the SEC. By being excellent at their job, the SEC lawyers get jobs at these private law firms.”

Or should the revolving door be permanently closed?

Though often based on perceptions largely focused on elected officials, not regulators or career staff, it is much more common to hear arguments supporting the revolving door being nailed shut than kept open. Much of the arguments supporting closing the door are focused on restoring a lack of public confidence in the government. Congressman Jared Golden, the lead sponsor of legislation to ban lobbying for life for all former members of Congress, remarked on the necessity of his bill by saying:

“Washington is broken. People have lost faith that the federal government is working on their behalf and instead is advancing the interests of powerful corporate special interests. This problem is made worse by the revolving door between Congress and big lobbying firms.”

Those arguments have been largely reinforced through the work of OpenSecrets. OpenSecrets is an independent nonprofit whose mission “is to track the flow of money in American politics and provide the data and analysis to strengthen democracy.” OpenSecrets’ website includes information on former members of Congress, Congressional staff, and administration officials serving in the private sector as lobbyists. The research conducted by OpenSecrets argues repeatedly that the revolving door enables undue access and power that former officials can easily translate to wealth. 

And it’ll just keep spinning

    So, what’s upon the horizon for the revolving door? Though modest reforms may be possible with a new administration, we should not anticipate the revolving door to be completely shut soon. There are no major Congressional proposals with enough momentum to be considered a threat to the revolving door and the Biden administration has already issued ethic guidelines which largely echo those of the Obama administration. While the elected officials controlling the door are also the ones walking through it when their time in public service concludes, we can likely expect the door to continue spinning for years to come unless reform efforts pick up some serious momentum. 

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s