May 7, 2021 - Politics & Policy

Biden's ethics end-around for labor

President Biden is seen looking at a water treatment plant during a visit to New Orleans.
President Biden surveys a water treatment plant during a visit to New Orleans today. Photo: Brendan Smialowski/AFP via Getty Images

The Biden administration is excusing top officials from ethics rules that would otherwise restrict their work with large labor unions that previously employed them, federal records show.

Why it matters: Labor's sizable personnel presence in the administration is driving policy, and the president's appointment of top union officials to senior posts gives those unions powerful voices in the federal bureaucracy — even at the cost of strictly adhering to his own stringent ethics standards.

What's happening: The White House waived some of those rules last week for Celeste Drake, who Biden tapped to lead a new Made in America Office.

  • Drake was excused from ethics restrictions that would've barred her from communicating with her former employers, the AFL-CIO and Directors Guild of America.
  • "The successful accomplishment of the mission of the newly created Made in America Office relies on extensive, open and collaborative communications ... between OMB and non-governmental entities including labor organizations," Samuel Bagenstos, the White House budget office's top lawyer, wrote in a memo posted on a disclosure tab of WhiteHouse.gov.

In March, the Office of Personnel Management waived ethics rules for its director of intergovernmental affairs, Alethea Predeoux, who had been the top lobbyist for the American Federation of Government Employees.

  • The union represents hundreds of thousands of federal government workers.
  • Absent a waiver, Biden's ethics pledge would bar her from working on issues on which she lobbied.

Biden has drawn extensively from union ranks to staff his transition and administration while touting the importance of organized labor to his agenda and the country generally.

What they're saying: Some of that staffing may require carveouts to ethics rules, but the White House sees it as qualitatively different than staffing from the business world.

  • "President Biden has stood strong for unions throughout his career, and he’s proud to have leading labor voices in the White House and throughout his administration helping to enact that agenda,” a spokesperson told Axios.
  • Conservatives see the matter differently and claim hypocrisy.
  • "It's no surprise that President Biden's union boss appointments have resulted in anti-worker policies like the PRO Act and the $15 minimum wage," said Alfredo Ortiz, president of the Job Creators Network.

Between the lines: The Biden administration's labor agenda frequently aligns with union priorities.

  • During his first day in office, Biden sacked the general counsel of the National Labor Relations Board and his immediate successor, who were seen as friendlier to business interests.
  • Biden's infrastructure proposal also would effectively undo right-to-work laws in 28 states and make it far easier to unionize workplaces.
  • And the Labor Department announced this week it was rolling back a Trump administration rule that made it easier for companies to classify workers as contractors rather than employees.
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