Just as President Barack Obama has intensified his anti-K Street rhetoric with the November elections in view, several of his administration’s senior aides have decamped for jobs along the influence corridor.
And many more are eyeing such a career move, sources say, despite Obama’s effort to curb the revolving door between government and advocacy.
“You’re going to see numerous people leave and lobby Congress,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist for Public Citizen, which opposes corporate influence on politics. “The president’s restrictions are clearly making a difference, but they haven’t stopped the revolving door. To do that, you’d need legislation.”
In the past two weeks alone, two Commerce Department officials went downtown: April Boyd, who was assistant secretary for legislative and intergovernmental affairs, joined Yahoo, where she will manage the company’s outreach to Democrats, and Kevin Griffis, who was senior adviser to the chief of staff, is now a principal at the Podesta Group, one of the city’s top-revenue-grossing lobby firms.
The duo is following in the footsteps of several other colleagues who have departed in recent months, including Jill Zuckman, a senior Transportation Department official, who went to SKDKnickerbocker; Nate Tibbits, who left the National Security Council to chair the U.S. public affairs practice at Burson-Marsteller; and Madeline Otto, who went from the Department of Health and Human Services to the federal government relations department of Group Health Cooperative.
Dana Singiser became Planned Parenthood’s vice president of public policy and government relations last fall after serving in the White House Office of Legislative Affairs. Another White House staffer, Dan Turton, departed last year to head the Washington, D.C., office for Entergy.
In general, federal law bars senior administration officials from lobbying their former agencies for one year, and on taking office in 2009, Obama issued an even broader post-employment ban.
The pledge, as it is known, extends the existing ban to two years, and for former officials who become registered lobbyists, it prohibits them from lobbying any covered executive branch official for the entirety of the Obama administration.
The ex-Obama aides are free to lobby Congress. That ability to breeze around Capitol Hill, coupled with their knowledge of the inner workings of the executive branch, even if they can’t lobby it, can make them attractive hires.
Even so, not all administration officials looking to move downtown will find lucrative opportunities — but it has little to do with the pledge or their restrictions, said Ivan Adler, a K Street recruiter with the McCormick Group.
“I wouldn’t say nobody cares about the pledge, but it’s not as big a factor as the economy or the lack of activity on the Hill,” he said.
Most of the former officials declined comment or did not return calls seeking comment. Michael Burns, an Entergy spokesman, said Turton “made it clear from the start” that he would honor his pledge.
A spokeswoman for the Podesta Group, Missi Tessier, confirmed that Griffis also signed the pledge. “But he is under few, if any, restrictions,” she said, noting that Griffis planned to focus on public relations work.
The Obama administration has drawn a clear distinction between registered lobbyists and those who do public relations or other types of issue advocacy. It’s a difference that many on K Street say makes little sense and actually causes more work to move out of the sunlight of lobbying disclosures and into the shadows.
But a White House spokesman said his boss has done more than any president before him to slow the revolving door.
“From the first day of his Administration when he signed an Executive Order instituting unprecedented reforms to just a few weeks ago when we released our 2 millionth White House visitor record, this President has taken historic steps to reduce the impact of corrosive influence of money in politics,” White House spokesman Eric Schultz said in an email to Roll Call. “Our goal has been to reduce the influence of special interests in Washington — which we’ve done more than any Administration in history.”
Officials are not permitted to accept gifts from lobbyists, for example. And people who have been registered lobbyists in the past two years cannot join the Obama administration without a waiver. But that policy has come under attack recently after Steve Ricchetti, a longtime K Street lobbyist who had deregistered in recent years but still ran his shop, Ricchetti Inc., joined Vice President Joseph Biden’s staff.
“The pledge is more a PR thing than anything else,” one K Street executive said. “When you need to get around it, you get around it. It’s a joke, and everyone knows it’s a joke.”
But Holman of Public Citizen isn’t laughing.
“From all my years of studying the revolving door, I’ve never seen an administration take the revolving-door restrictions so seriously,” he said. “They’ve got records. They’ve got pledge agreements signed by employees. They’re tracking this. And they’re sticking to it, much to the disdain of K Street.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.