To ensure that its work is objective, impartial, and nonpartisan, CBO takes a number of steps. One of those steps is to enforce strict rules to prevent its employees from having financial conflicts of interests and to limit its employees’ political activities.
CBO’s Policies Regarding Potential Financial Conflicts of Interest
A financial conflict of interest would arise if an employee’s personal financial interests or activities conflicted with the conduct of his or her duties at CBO. To prevent such conflicts of interest and protect the agency’s reputation for impartiality, CBO enforces strict limits on its employees’ financial interests and activities.
The Ethics in Government Act requires CBO’s employees earning at least 120 percent of the GS-15 rate of basic pay (which comes to $123,175 in 2016) to submit financial disclosure statements to the Clerk of the House. CBO’s Office of the General Counsel reviews the financial disclosures for conflicts of interest and substantive compliance.
CBO also requires all employees to disclose to their managers any financial interests they or their family members have in any organization that would have an interest in the conclusions of any analysis in which the employees are involved during the performance of their official duties. That disclosure is necessary regardless of the size or value of the interest, but it is not required for diversified mutual funds and unit investment trusts.
An employee’s managers, in consultation with the Office of the General Counsel, determine whether any disclosed interest would interfere with, or might appear to interfere with, the employee’s work assignments at CBO. Depending on the situation, conflicts of interest may be mitigated through such actions as recusal, assignment of the employee to other work, additional review of the work product, or divestiture of particular financial interests.
Because of the time involved and the potential for conflicts of interest, CBO employees who wish to engage in outside employment—with or without compensation—must obtain approval from their managers. In addition, a number of statutory prohibitions apply to CBO employees. No CBO employee may act as an agent for anyone, regardless of compensation, before any government entity in any matter or proceeding in which the United States government has an interest; accept compensation of any kind from a foreign government; or act as an agent for a foreign principal. Under the rules of the House, employees earning at least 120 percent of the GS-15 rate of basic pay are also subject to restrictions on total outside earned income, fiduciary relationships, and service as a board member or officer of an organization.
Moreover, CBO employees earning 120 percent or more of the GS-15 rate of basic pay may not accept an honorarium for a speech, article, or appearance. An employee earning less than that amount may do so, except when the subject matter directly relates to the employee’s official duties; the payment is made because of the status of the employee; or the person offering the honorarium has an interest that may be substantially affected by the performance or nonperformance of the employee’s official duties.
CBO’s Policies Regarding Political Activities
Because CBO’s reputation, credibility, and usefulness to the Congress depend on its being—and being perceived to be—an objective organization free from political bias and involvement, the agency imposes certain limitations on employees’ political activities (including public advocacy). At the same time, CBO wants its employees to have as much opportunity as possible to participate in civic life and comment on matters of public concern. Therefore, CBO’s policies in this area are designed to balance the interest of the agency in maintaining its reputation for objectivity and the interests of employees in engaging in political activities.
CBO employees are prohibited from participating in political activities if such participation would identify, or appear to identify, CBO with a political campaign, candidate, officeholder, or cause. The positions taken are irrelevant; rather, the potential harm to CBO’s reputation for objectivity comes from association with political activities.
Some activities present negligible potential harm because an employee’s name and employer do not arise in the course of the activities. Therefore, as long as an employee does not do something to identify himself or herself with CBO (such as wearing clothing with the CBO logo), he or she can attend rallies, register voters, drive voters to the polls, stuff envelopes, distribute literature, canvass by telephone, vote, and make campaign contributions below the reporting threshold of the Federal Election Commission (currently $200). In addition, CBO employees can generally seek local, nonpartisan positions or offices, such as membership on a school board, advisory board, or zoning board; however, such positions are considered outside employment even if uncompensated.
The potential harm to CBO’s reputation of other political activities—and, therefore, the limitation that CBO needs to impose on an employee—depends on a number of factors. When determining whether a political activity beyond those mentioned in the previous paragraph is permitted, CBO considers the employee’s intended degree of participation, the nature of the activity, the time and place of the activity, the employee’s position at CBO, and the connection between the activity and the employee’s responsibilities at CBO. The potential harm to CBO generally is greater for political activities related to an employee’s area of analysis at CBO and for political activities by employees in senior positions; the potential harm is less for political activities by employees involved in the agency’s business operations (such as human resources, information technology, and acquisitions) than for employees involved in analytic projects for the Congress. Even past political activities can sometimes affect the perception of the objectivity of CBO’s work on certain projects, and CBO may take those past activities into account in assigning projects to employees.
CBO does not consider political affiliation when hiring: For any position at CBO, the agency seeks to hire the best-qualified job candidate solely on the basis of his or her fitness to perform the duties of the position. However, given the importance to the agency of being (and being perceived to be) free from political bias and involvement, a person’s fitness to perform the duties of most positions at CBO depends, in part, on whether the person can carry out his or her responsibilities in an objective and nonpartisan way, and also on whether that person would be perceived to be free from political bias and involvement. Therefore, in hiring for most positions at CBO, the agency considers whether a job candidate has been publicly associated with a political campaign, candidate, officeholder, or cause; if so, whether that job candidate would be able to carry out his or her duties objectively; and whether hiring that candidate would identify, or appear to identify, CBO with that campaign, candidate, officeholder, or cause. Again, the positions taken are irrelevant; rather, the potential harm for CBO comes from association with political activities. The magnitude of potential harm to CBO’s reputation, and therefore the weight that CBO gives to this consideration in a hiring decision, generally depends on the nature of the position at CBO and on how recent and prominent has been the job candidate’s association with political activities.
For example, a job candidate who currently holds a position in an organization focused on politics or advocacy might be disqualified because the objectivity of his or her work at CBO could be called into question. That problem would be especially acute if the candidate’s assignments at CBO would include analyzing policies that he or she had recently been advocating for or against. At the same time, it would not be practical for CBO to limit employment to people who had never been involved in political activities (including public advocacy). Therefore, a job candidate who has been doing objective analysis for some time generally would not be disqualified because of earlier political associations; the length of time required for such “cooling off” depends on the significance and prominence of those associations. Also, candidates for senior positions are held to a higher standard than candidates for junior positions, and candidates for positions that are primarily involved in the analytic work that CBO does for the Congress are held to a higher standard than candidates for positions that are primarily involved in CBO’s business operations.
In addition to the considerations just discussed, which are particular to CBO, the Federal Election Campaign Act and provisions of the U.S. Criminal Code prohibit all federal employees from engaging in the following activities:
- Soliciting or receiving political contributions in any building where federal employees work, including office buildings of the House of Representatives;
- Soliciting campaign contributions from federal government employees, including employees of the House of Representatives; and
- Making a political contribution to a Member of Congress or other federal official who is the employer or employing authority of the contributor.