What Can A Regulator With A Sense Of Ethics Do After Leaving The Feds? Try Not To Become A Lobbyist.

After many years building your career, you’ve reached such a level of good reputation and success that you’ve been tapped to lead a major federal regulatory agency for a few years. Wow! That’s real power. Great job! But your term ends, or the administration changes, and your time in charge of the agency is done. You feel strongly that you’ve got another decade or two in you before retirement, though. So what’s your next move?

Well, that all depends on the fraught question of whether or not you feel particularly beholden to ethics.

ProPublica reported today on the post-regulatory careers of a few former federal officials. The law doesn’t necessarily have high standards for its former servants, but some regulators still try to have standards for themselves.

ProPublica spoke with Sheila Bair, who was head of the FDIC under two presidents. Bair recently accepted a director position with a Spanish megabank, although she had in the past been critical of the ties between regulators and those they regulate.

Bair’s solution to the dilemma was to stay out of the American banking scene, she told ProPublica, although they asked. She declined the positions: “I wanted to stay away from the U.S. because of the revolving-door concerns,” she said.

Mary L. Schapiro, former chair of the SEC, faced the same problem. Schapiro determined to avoid financial lobbying organizations entirely when she moved on in her career, but after just nine months as managing director of a financial services consulting firm realized that avoiding lobbying might be harder than it had seemed:

As for Ms. Schapiro, she had set up much stricter personal rules for herself than the Obama administration has, which are in fact stricter than the rules for civil servants. The former S.E.C. chief decided that she would never lobby regulators on behalf of any clients.

“We all went through hell together for four years, seven days a week,” she told me, referring to the financial crisis and the herculean rule-making that followed. “I never wanted to go back to the team that I led through all of that to ask them for anything.”

Ms. Schapiro didn’t find that her job at Promontory fit her well. Technically, the firm doesn’t lobby, according to the Washington rules of what constitutes lobbying. But just as banking has its shadow banking, lobbying has its shadow lobbying.

On the one hand, it makes perfect sense that federal regulatory agencies would hire successful experts in their field. If you’re looking for someone to have oversight in a critical industry, and to be the head of an enormous bureaucracy, you’d want a seasoned executive who knows the players, has connections, and truly understands the ins and outs of the industry she or he regulates. It would be unrealistic and draconian to forbid anyone who holds a high-ranking regulatory position from ever working again in their field.

On the other hand, the revolving door between regulators and businesses creates some rather significant conflicts of interest as powerful types move fluidly back and forth between the two worlds. And when things look shady, they get very shady very quickly.

Just in the past few years, for example, we’ve had the FCC commissioner who approved the Comcast/NBC deal and then took off to work for Comcast, who had to issue a public defense of her move. Or, also in telecom, there’s the former FCC chairman who now heads the National Cable and Telecommunications Association, the cable industry’s major lobbying group.

Should former regulators be telling businesses how to circumvent or undermine the very regulations they helped create, or were tasked with enforcing? No. But, as ProPublica points out, even keeping every single former fed out of private business wouldn’t stop that from happening. Huge industries–finance, cable, banking–have huge pockets. As long as the law permits them, lobbyists will keep on lobbying… even without their former adversaries at their helms.

Maintaining Ethics in the Move From Regulator to Regulated [ProPublica]

Want more consumer news? Visit our parent organization, Consumer Reports, for the latest on scams, recalls, and other consumer issues.