Nothing is more critical to the health of the people’s government – and representative democracy itself – than the public trust. We are deeply committed to strengthening our state’s ethics laws to improve the public’s confidence that there is a bold line between public service and private interests.
Washington state recently received a “D+” for government accountability from the Center for Public Integrity on its annual scorecard assessing our rules governing disclosure, accountability and influence peddling. If one of our children brought home a D+ from school, we would not just accept it – we would take immediate remedial action to help our kids get back on track. For Washington, we expect nothing less.
A key factor in Washington’s low grade is the lack of a “cooling off” period before public officials can lobby their former co-workers. Currently, either one of us could quit our posts and, the very next day, be paid a handsome sum by private interests to lobby our former colleagues in state government.
The Center for Public Integrity described this revolving door as a “big ethical loophole” in Washington. This revolving door creates the appearance of a conflict of interest, invites actual conflicts and undermines public trust. That’s not right, and immediate remedial action is necessary.
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A majority of states and the federal government have revolving-door laws prohibiting officeholders from lobbying for at least a year after they leave office. In 2015, Seattle voters overwhelmingly passed a local measure requiring a three-year cooling off period before high-ranking former city officials and employees can be paid to lobby the city.
Yet in Washington state, where we pride ourselves on integrity, independence and holding government accountable, our bipartisan revolving-door bill failed to get out of the Legislature last year. It would create a one-year cooling-off period for elected officials, agency heads and senior-level staff. We are bringing that bill back (House Bill 1136 and Senate Bill 6258), and we will keep proposing it until it becomes law.
Washington’s public officials adopt and enforce regulations that affect all of us every day. They spend billions of taxpayer money and make appointments to influential positions. The public entrusts us with these responsibilities. Waiting one year before being paid by private interests to lobby former agencies is a small price to pay to maintain the public’s trust. We hope the Legislature agrees.
In the original Ethics Act, the Legislature determined that, “The citizens of the state expect all state officials and employees to perform their public responsibilities in accordance with the highest ethical and moral standards and to conduct the business of the state only in a manner that advances the public's interest.” Adding a cooling-off period will ensure we live up to that expectation and enhance public confidence in our state officials and institutions. Washington should strive for an “A” in our accountability to the public.
Bob Ferguson is the state attorney general. State Sen. Reuven Carlyle, D-Seattle, represents Washington’s 36th District in the Legislature.