March 05, 2021

How the Biden Transition Team Ethics Plan Compares With the Biden Administration’s Ethics Pledge

By Jaqlyn Alderete

Ethics requirements are now essential for transition teams planning for a new administration and for appointees once a president takes office. These plans ensure that staff members do not personally benefit from their roles or promote agendas that create a conflict of interest.

The 2020 Presidential Transition Enhancement Act codifies the practice of previous transition teams implementing ethics plans that include provisions relating to classified information, lobbying, foreign agents and conflicts of interest. And once taking office, recent presidents have issued executive orders with ethics rules that govern executive branch appointee interactions with the public, provide for transparency and ensure coherence with laws regarding lobbying. If an individual is appointed to a position in a department, they must also abide by ethics rules issued by their own ethics division. 

President Joe Biden’s transition team and his administration both issued ethics requirements and made them publicly available. While each plan centers on ensuring high ethical standards, there are differences which reflect the distinctions between serving on a transition team and serving in public office.

The Biden transition ethics plan called on staff members not to misuse their positions for personal benefit. It also emphasized safeguarding classified information and protecting the reputations of Biden, his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, and other top transition officials. The administration’s ethics pledge emphasizes restoring and maintaining public trust in government by focusing on preventing or resolving conflicts of interest.

Some of the differences in Biden’s two ethics requirements include:  

  • The transition ethics plan had a lobbying restriction of one year while the administration’s pledge has a two-year prohibition. Both the administration’s and the transition’s ethics rules include provisions barring individuals from engaging in matters they worked on as lobbyists or as foreign agents, but for different periods of time.
  • The transition ethics plan included provisions regarding disclosure of nonpublic information while the administration pledge has no such provision. Transition team members were required to obtain authorization before seeking access to nonpublic information and pledge to not use such information for personal gain.
  • The transition ethics plan restricted team members from promoting their work in marketing materials during and for 12 months after their service.The administration’s ethics pledge does not include the same requirement. However, it states that appointees should not use their positions for personal gain and advises them to avoid using or appearing to use their government position for private benefit.
  • The transition plan restricts team members, their spouses and minor children from buying or selling individual stocks unless they get approval from the general counsel. Officials in presidentially-appointed positions requiring Senate confirmation are required to follow rules issued by the Office of Government Ethics regarding divestiture of investments and other financial interests.
  • The transition plan stated that team members could not make any representations on behalf of Biden or then-Senator Kamala Harris, their designees, or transition team officials without authorization.The administration ethics pledge does not mention this matter.

The goal of ethics agreements for a transition team and an administration is to ensure accountability and integrity among those serving in these institutions. Individuals serving on presidential transitions and in government must understand and follow all ethics rules to ensure their work is transparent and in the public interest.