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When President Barack Obama took office, he immediately installed unprecedented revolving-door restrictions that banned federal lobbyists from serving in his administration without a waiver. And in his rhetoric, he made no secret of his disdain for the influence industry.
Few people, from lobbyists to those who keep tabs on them, expect radical changes in Obama’s relationship with K Street during his second term. But many predict that his administration will quietly open its doors to more lobbyists through the waivers.
And they expect the president to court the business community, as he did in December during fiscal cliff negotiations, and like-minded activists when it will help him sell his priorities on Capitol Hill.
“He still works with groups that have lobbyists — that make sense to his agenda,” said Jim Clarke, senior vice president of public policy for the American Society of Association Executives. “He’ll look for support where he can find it.”
A White House official who was asked whether the president planned to make any policy changes related to lobbyists in his second term, responded in an email that “we do not have any changes to the revolving-door/lobbyist restrictions the President instituted upon taking office.”
Even as Obama has softened his restrictions on corporate influence, he has continued to hold the line on federal registered lobbyists. For example, his inaugural committee this year is accepting unlimited donations from large corporations but turning away cash from lobbyists.
Craig Holman, a registered lobbyist for the progressive and anti-corporate Public Citizen, said he is currently drafting legislation that would turn Obama’s executive orders on the revolving door into legislation, so that they will endure after he leaves office. He also is shopping for support from Republicans in Congress.
He said the restrictions Obama put in place have “played out beautifully” and have resulted in fewer conflict-of-interest scandals than previous administrations.
“This is a very controversial ethics measure that quite frankly I know will disappear as soon as the Obama administration leaves,” Holman said.
Most lobbyists, though, have complained that Obama’s executive orders on the revolving door have kept out some of the savviest policy experts, who are registered lobbyists. Further, they say, by branding registered lobbyists, whose clients and fees are publicly disclosed, with what amounts to a scarlet letter “L,” Obama has increased the ranks of the unlobbyists, those who peddle influence but don’t register with Congress.
“I would hope that the Obama administration, looking over the next four years, would look back on the last four years and evaluate how the lobbying ban worked and did it achieve their goals,” said Ilisa Halpern Paul, managing government relations director and leader of the lobbying and advocacy team at Drinker Biddle & Reath. “And if not, or if there were unintended negative consequences, are there mid-course corrections or tweaks to it for the next two to four years?”
Paul, a Democrat, suggested that it would be highly unlikely for Obama to undo his own executive orders. But she noted that particularly in the final two years of his term, as many aides typically depart, it may be difficult to fill spots without granting more waivers allowing K Streeters to serve.