The administration’s failure to appoint a senior ethics czar or solicit input from outside good-government groups may be the cause of some early missteps. For example, Biden made good on his promise to release lists of White House visitors, but he undermined the value of this move when he declined to disclose the countless visits being held virtually during the pandemic. He also has chosen not to direct federal agencies to disclose their visitor logs. These omissions run contrary to the spirit of his campaign promise to seek legislation requiring disclosure of meetings with lobbyists.
Biden’s appointment of Tom Vilsack to be agriculture secretary is similarly hard to reconcile with the spirit of his campaign promise to expand the definition of who counts as a “lobbyist.” Before joining the administration, Vilsack led the U.S. Dairy Export Council, a dairy industry advocacy shop. Because Vilsack didn’t personally register as a lobbyist, he slipped through the cracks of Biden’s ban on appointing lobbyists, even though he directed the group’s lobbying efforts. Biden deserves praise for reinstating the ban on employing lobbyists and for acknowledging that “our lobbyist regulations are filled with loopholes.” But he let Vilsack drive a milk truck through a loophole in his ethics executive order.
The White House ethics office also appears to have not met the deadline for releasing the financial disclosure reports of its appointees. My organization filed numerous requests for these disclosures, and federal law required the White House to release any that had been filed at least 30 days before the date of our requests.