Add number 572 to the list of reasons why people don’t believe the government is working for them any more.
Deborah Platt Majoras, chair of the Federal Trade Commission and one of the country’s top consumer protection authorities, has announced that she’s taking a job with a company the FTC oversees – Proctor & Gamble. You know P&G – they sell everything from the coffee in your top cupboard to the dish soap under the sink. it’s Majoras’s job at the FTC to make a broad range of competition, advertising and enforcement decisions that impact P&G’s bottom line.
Robert Weissman, editor of the Multinational Monitor, lays out a series of the FTC’s recent actions affecting P&G here, but one admission says it all:
Asked about the propriety of the move, FTC spokesperson Nancy Judy explains that Majoras will need to abide by a year-long "cooling off" period. She’ll never be able to represent P&G before the Commission on matters on which she worked while at the FTC. And once she announced that she would be taking a job with P&G, she removed herself from any matters that might affect the company.
Shira Mintz, who is the assistant general counsel for ethics at the FTC, says that Majoras is "extremely conscientious" about ethical matters, and that everything she has done is above board.
OK, but is there any concern about appearances here? Or is this just how things work?
"It is how things work," says Mintz. "The nature of the business is the revolving door."
That’s the state of affairs: the ethics lawyer thinks there’s no problem when regulators take jobs with the regulated. What kind of confidence can the public have in the FTC if, at any given moment, its members could be negotiating a cushy job with the very companies they’re passing judgment on?
Citizen volunteers with Consumer Watchdog tackled the revolving door problem by passing the strongest conflict of interest initiatives in the country. They’re on the books in three California cities, and prohibit public officials from taking campaign cash, gifts, or (the important one here) a job from companies that they have benefited through their official actions. If the city of Santa Monica awards a multi-million dollar trash hauling contract, the councilmembers who approved the deal can’t take a job with the trash hauler.
Tweak the details and the same law could prohibit federal regulators from switching their allegiance to regulated companies before they get both feet out the door. Right now, the only real check on what Majoras can do is that she can’t represent P&G to the FTC for a year. But that does nothing to clean up the perception that she might have had her job prospects, rather than consumers, in mind while making decisions that affected the company. Or the likelihood that P&G’ll be taking her lead on how to present its issues to the commission, even if she doesn’t call her former colleagues herself.
It’s a good time to nail that revolving door shut.