President Joe Biden’s incoming chief of staff, Jeff Zients, has drawn attention as an example of influential decision-makers in the White House who are not required to disclose their financial interests to the public.
Zients led Biden’s response to COVID-19 before returning to the White House last fall to help scout potential appointees for the administration’s top posts in anticipation of a staff shakeup.
But his return in October to an uncompensated role reportedly revived questions about the use of certain designations to allow staff who perform important White House functions to avoid public financial disclosure. These positions have generated controversy over real or perceived conflicts of interest between presidential administrations.
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“Special government employees” can keep their jobs in the private sector and are exempt from filing the public financial statements required for full-time presidential hires. Like a consultant, a so-called SGE generally holds the position for 130 days or less. .
The White House released Zients’ financial disclosure during his previous release, but did not do so upon his return in October. Biden’s top adviser, Anita Dunn, flouted traditional disclosure rules during two previous stints in the White House.
Zients, who led the National Economic Council under former President Barack Obama, is slated to succeed outgoing White House chief of staff Ron Klain.
But not only Zients current financial holdings are not seen by the public. Some avoid disclosure altogether by taking a salary below a certain level or holding a position that is not legally required to disclose to the public what financial interests they have.
While the practice makes it more difficult to understand which interests influence the president, it also suggests an effort to aggregate decision-making from traditional agencies into the White House.
That appeared to be the case for incoming chief of staff Zients during his time as coronavirus czar, with Politico’s West Wing playbook writing in 2021 that he and his 21-person team took ” the leadership in Covid-19 more than in Health and Humans”. Services Secretary Xavier Becerra and the massive HHS bureaucracy.”
Reports indicate that Biden’s advisers on climate, the economy and immigration have been more influential in shaping the president’s agenda than the cabinet appointees leading his agencies.
These efforts shield the decision-making process from the bureaucratic demands of government agencies. It also suggests a bid to potentially aggregate authority within a White House outside the bounds of the Freedom of Information Act.
A review of federal records shows that while the White House’s head count shrank after Biden’s first year in office, it continues to employ hundreds of aides who have not filed public disclosures.
Disclosures from Biden’s first year in office showed 560 people working in the executive office of the president with salaries totaling about $50 million. By 2022, Biden had 474 White House staff members.
Estimates put the number of officials who have yet to file public financial statements at 430, meaning seven out of 10 aides over the past two years have not told the public what financial interest they have.
Government ethics lawyers say more transparency is needed.
“If there are this number of officials working in the White House who are involved in the decision-making process and the public has no idea of the potential conflicts that they may have, the financial investments that may be related to some of the companies that they can be involved in the issues they’re working on, that’s troubling,” said Mike Chamberlain, director of Protect the Public, a conservative watchdog group.
While there is no indication that the White House breached a legal obligation, the practice appears to run counter to the Biden administration’s claim that it is the most ethical and transparent in history.
“I would think that for an administration that calls itself the most ethical in history and the most transparent in history, it would not be enough to adhere to the letter of the law. You’d think they’d want to raise the bar a bit higher,” Chamberlain added.
By comparison, former President Donald Trump’s White House employed 377 officials in 2017 and 374 in 2018, while former President Barack Obama employed 487 officials in 2009 and about 470 in 2010, according to a review of the data available
Government ethics lawyers say temporary employees should not be granted such influence over essential government functions.
“The lack of disclosure is relevant and it’s a problem,” Jeff Hauser told the liberal Revolving Door Project. “From the White House’s point of view, its budget is inadequate and stretched, so unpaid senior staff is even more attractive than unpaid interns. But freeing up unpaid or underpaid part-time staff who can making policies without the constraints of ethics rules on the behavior of full-time staff and without public transparency undermines ethics laws.”
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Hauser said that while a president may have a circle of advisers who don’t necessarily draw a salary from the White House, loopholes that allow wealthy staffers to shield their outside financial interests from the public should be closed.
“There will always be a kitchen cupboard of some sort, but if the only distinction between full-time staff and non-full-time staff is who is rich enough to take a pay cut to avoid transparency… well , that is a distinction without a difference and it is a gap that needs to be filled,” he said.