Just last week, the governor of Puerto Rico canceled a $300 million contract with a Montana-based firm that had promised to build a new power grid there. At the time the company was awarded the contract, it had only two full-time employees. Questions have been raised as to whether Department of Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke has connections to the firm, which is based in his hometown.
This isn’t the first time members of the Trump administration have been questioned about conflicts of interest. EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt has strong ties to the fossil fuel industry and sued the EPA multiple times before assuming his current position. Before Secretary of Health Tom Price resigned, he faced inquiries about how his private investments related to laws he introduced or cosponsored as a senator. The laws could have delayed or blocked Medicare payments to companies in which he had invested. More recently, Susan LaPierre – a senior National Rifle Association official who is also married to its top lobbyist – was appointed to the National Park Foundation Advisory Board, which influences park rules such as hunting regulations and environmental protections.
Sadly, the list doesn’t stop there.
In medicine, too, professionals and the public have paid increasing attention to conflicts of interest – like those Tom Price had as an orthopedic surgeon. Doctors are under increased scrutiny to avoid and disclose ties to the pharmaceutical and medical device industries. Medical journals require authors to disclose potential financial and personal conflicts of interest. Healthcare conference organizers are asked to address any conflicts of interest before including specific speakers in their program. Though there is much more that needs to be done in these areas (such as creating a better firewall between medical education and research and the pharmaceutical industry), the move toward greater transparency and the elimination of conflicts of interest signals a good trend in medicine. It ensures that doctors and other clinicians’ healthcare recommendations will better reflect the interests of their patients.
Shouldn’t we follow similar rules – to avoid conflicts of interest – when selecting policymakers who will influence the well-being of human populations, (nonhuman) animal populations, and the earth we all live on? Attention to each of these areas is critical, due to the many connections between human and animal health and the environment.
Conflicts of interest within government, especially those that fail to consider the shared interests of humans, animals, and the earth, aren’t new. For example, in prior administrations, agricultural secretaries have held interests in promoting the meat and dairy industry – a major threat to human health, animals, and the environment. Along with the Department of Health and Human Services, the Department of Agriculture is responsible for making national nutrition recommendations. Though Dietary Guidelines for America depend in part on science, the Secretary of Agriculture can choose to promote the goals of industry in lieu of the latest evidence on diet, nutrition, and health outcomes. The current Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, has ties to a global agribusiness trading company and the beverage industry, so questions have already been raised about how his agency’s nutrition and agricultural policies will be tainted by his business relationships.
So what can we as individuals do about conflicts of interest within government, given the systemic nature of these issues? Here are a few ideas:
Participate as a Public Citizen
Public comments are commonly solicited during the rulemaking process, such as for the Dietary Guidelines for America, which are revised every five years.
More generally, the Office of the Federal Register has prepared a guide to the federal rulemaking process, which can be found here. You can submit statements on almost anything – and your comments matter. For example, public comments have helped enhance protections for kids and for chimpanzees.
Demand Transparency and Accountability
Let’s hold our elected representatives accountable. Here are some ways to do that:
You can follow your elected representatives’ voting patterns at sites like Politifact.com and GovTrack.us. Contact them when you like or don’t like something they’ve introduced, co-sponsored, or voted for.
Share America has some helpful tips to promote transparency – it is the US Department of State’s platform to spark discussion and debate on important topics like democracy, freedom of expression, and the role of civil society.
Until recently, the Office of Government Ethics was viewed as an independent body that could offer oversight of government agencies charged with meeting the needs of the public. Let’s demand that our lawmakers give the Office of Government Ethics the authority it should have.
Get Big Money Out of Politics
Citizens United and related court decisions have reshaped the business of politics. Corporations can now spend unlimited amounts of money on political activities – which can ultimately impact the air we breathe, the water we drink, and the health of our communities. There are ongoing efforts to overturn the Citizens United court decision.
Participate in Your Community
Closer to home, we can all participate in Town Halls and similar local events. These events take place in our shared public spaces and offer opportunities to communicate with public officials. It also helps to regularly call and write to elected officials. Don’t forget – they represent us.
Commit to the Long Haul
Our current dilemma will require years of work. Our kids need better lessons in civics – at a time when civics education is on the decline. From an early age, children need to learn about basic principles that are critical to democracy.
Conflicts of interest often clash with principles of democracy. Though we commonly refer to ideals like liberty and justice, we often fail to consistently apply them to our daily lives. Building these principles into our everyday decisions is key. My friend Marc Bekoff likes to say that we vote every day with our pocketbooks – whether our purchases relate to our plates, our clothes, our vehicles, or otherwise. Studies show that children and adults are more likely to adhere to principles such as freedom and justice when they are applied consistently and ubiquitously. And they are key to creating a healthier, more resilient society.
Are there any suggestions you’d add to this list? What do you do to address conflicts of interest in your daily life, at work, and elsewhere?