Warren Targets ‘Revolving Door’ Between Government and Tech

Elizabeth Warren announced a new plan to fight corruption in Washington on Tuesday: The Democratic presidential candidate wants to ban giant corporations from hiring senior government officials until they have been out of public office for at least four years. “Today, it is standard practice in Republican and Democratic administrations for giant mega businesses like Pfizer, Google, BP, Citibank, AT&T, Boeing, and Comcast to vacuum up anyone and everyone who leaves one of their government regulators in an obvious effort to leverage their new hire’s political connections,” she writes. But of all the companies Warren singles out, none receive quite as much attention as Facebook.

Warren has already taken Facebook to task for being too big and for not fact-checking political ads. Now she’s criticizing the company for hiring former government officials like Joel Kaplan, a former deputy chief of staff to George W. Bush, who was brought on to be the company’s vice president of US public policy in 2011. (Kaplan briefly worked for an electric utility before moving to the social network.) Warren accused Kaplan of using his political contacts to help Facebook manage its relationships in Washington, including accompanying CEO Mark Zuckerberg at a recent “closed-door charm offensive with Republican lawmakers.”

Warren’s proposal makes clear that Facebook is far from the only company to do this, and other Silicon Valley tech giants have hired a number of former officials to fill the ranks of their policy, communications, and government relations teams. Google was notoriously cozy with the Obama administration, and hired some of its former members. Apple brought on Lisa Jackson, Obama’s former Environmental Protection Agency administrator, to be its vice president of environment, policy, and social initiatives.

One could argue that former government employees are the best qualified to work in areas like policy and government affairs. Executive and legislative branch officials are already subject to certain restrictions over their post-government work. But Warren’s proposal highlights how the “revolving door” between government and industry can create the appearance of an uneven playing field, if not worse.

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Amazon was scrutinized earlier this year for hiring a former Department of Defense employee while it competed for a major cloud computing contract with the Pentagon. US officials later dismissed concerns about the worker’s potential conflicts of interest, and Amazon ultimately lost the so-called JEDI contract to Microsoft on Friday. The Guardian also reported in December that Anne Rung—an Amazon executive who previously worked in the Obama administration—had consulted with the government about a new internet portal before the legislation creating it was even signed into law.

As threats of more federal regulation and potential antitrust action loom, tech firms like Google, Facebook, and Amazon have increased their federal lobbying spending. Last fall, Amazon announced plans to open a sprawling “second headquarters” in Arlington, Virginia, near the federal agencies it has lucrative contracts with.

 

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Warren’s policy proposal targets corporations worth over $150 billion, as well as federal contractors like United Health and Lockheed Martin. A new ethics watchdog, the Office of Public Integrity, would be tasked with enforcing the rule. Companies would be required to pay 1 percent of net yearly profits for their first offense, 2 percent for the second violation, and 5 percent for subsequent violations.

For all the benefits the practice supposedly brings, hiring former senior government officials has occasionally put companies in an uncomfortable position, too—like when those employees support policies or political figures that run counter to Silicon Valley’s more liberal workforce. Some Facebook employees were outraged last year when Kaplan appeared directly behind then Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh during his confirmation hearing, after the judge was accused of sexually assaulting Christine Blasey Ford. Warren notes Kaplan’s relationship with Kavanaugh in her proposal. More recently, Google workers have objected to the hiring of Miles Taylor, a former Department of Homeland Security official who defended the 2017 Muslim travel ban. He joined Google to be a government affairs and public policy manager, according to Buzzfeed News.

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