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.
Jim Manley, a former senior aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid of Nevada and now a senior director with QGA Public Affairs, agreed that Obama won’t make big policy changes toward K Street.
“That’s the problem with taking such a hard-line position,” Manley said. “It’s difficult to change later on, despite the fact that you’re keeping many good people from serving in the administration.”
Adam Smith, a spokesman with Public Campaign, which advocates public financing of campaigns, said he doesn’t expect new restrictions on lobbyists, either. But he’d like to see the president go even further when it comes to money-in-politics matters.
“During the campaign he talked a really big game about needing to have small donors to overcome super PACs,” he said. “Then he just says I’m not going to have lobbyists in my administration, and a lot of times that’s just window dressing.”
Nick Allard, who previously led the lobby unit at Patton Boggs and is now dean of the Brooklyn Law School, said the president has more pressing matters — such as gun control, immigration and fiscal legislation — than the policy of K Street.
“I think there will be more focus on getting things done in the second term and less focus on the arcane subject of lobbying rules,” Allard said. “They’re going to focus on real issues and real problems, not phony ones.”
Allard noted, too, that the bashing of lobbyists breeds distrust in government and that what Obama needs to do over the next four years is build confidence in the integrity of the system.
“It’s actually harmful to promote the canard that you can buy results in Washington and that our public officials are somehow duped by hypnotic influence peddlers,” Allard said.
But Monte Ward, the new president of the American League of Lobbyists, said he expects more of the same when it comes to Obama’s rhetoric. Behind the scenes, though, the administration may be in on the joke.
“I have gotten the sense they recognize the role lobbyists play, and the expertise some lobbyists have,” Ward added. “But I don’t know for sure.”
Last March, the league sent a letter to the White House asking for a meeting to discuss lobbying reforms Obama and the lobbyists could potentially agree on, such as closing a loophole that allows some advocates to skirt the lobbying disclosure system. Ward said his group hasn’t heard back yet. He’s going to try again this week.
“We plan on sending a letter to congratulate him on his inauguration and then offer to meet with him again,” Ward said.