Obama’s K Street Problem

How Will an Anti-Lobbyist’s Administration Function in D.C.?

Posted January 11, 2008 at 3:49pm

Sen. Barack Obama’s K Street supporters not only are keeping their checkbooks tucked away — Obama’s presidential campaign, of course, won’t take their money — but they’re also letting their résumés get dusty because they figure there won’t be spots for lobbyists in an Obama administration.

But despite Obama’s harsh anti-lobbyist campaign rhetoric, K Streeters still would have a shot at serving under a President Obama. They would

face severe restrictions on what issues they could work on and the positions in which they could serve. And perhaps even more troubling for lobbyists, Obama promises to close the revolving door by banning any of his political appointees from turning around and lobbying his administration.

For months, Obama’s K Street supporters and advisers have encouraged his presidential campaign to take a more nuanced approach to the lobbying industry, especially when it comes to staffing a White House and executive branch. Last month, Obama supporters say, the candidate changed his message from one where no lobbyists would be welcome on his staff to one of more nuance: that they won’t dominate his administration.

Still, after winning the Iowa caucus and finishing a close second in New Hampshire, lobbyists see an Obama administration more likely and they remain worried that the candidate could end up hurting his ability to staff an executive branch with the best and brightest if many lobbyists are nixed from the get-go. Not to mention that lobbyists, of course, are potentially worried about their own career opportunities.

“I’m fairly concerned about it, that there wouldn’t be any jobs [in an Obama administration] if you’re a lobbyist,” one K Street supporter of Obama said. “I don’t expect a job, but also I don’t want to be kept out of it just because I’m a lobbyist. If this was the one thing that kept me out, that would be disappointing.”

Obama for President spokesman Tommy Vietor said last week that a President Obama would not permit registered federal lobbyists from becoming political appointees who would then work on policy and legislative issues that affect their former private-sector clients. “You will not be able to work on regulations or contracts directly related to your former employer for two years,” Vietor said.

That means an energy lobbyist could not join the Department of Energy as a political appointee who then deals with policies that relate to his former employer. The lobbyist likely could, however, work in other roles such as in the White House communications shop or in the legislative affairs operation. And non-political appointees would not be subject to the same restrictions.

In addition, were political appointees to leave, they would be barred from lobbying the entire Obama administration for its duration, Vietor said. But they still would be able to lobby Congress after any statutory cooling-off period had ended.

“Ethics and lobbying reform is something Sen. Obama has worked on in the Illinois state Senate and the U.S. Senate,” Vietor said. “He is the only person in the [presidential] race who has taken on lobbyists and special interest groups and won. What he’s going to do is close the revolving door in Washington, where lobbyists leave government agencies and then lobby their former colleagues and vice versa.”

With the race for the Democratic nomination still very much up in the air, some of Obama’s K Street supporters said they are not yet worrying about whether they could, or could not, serve in a would-be Obama administration.

“Lobbyists that support Obama recognize that it’s really premature for this kind of speculation,” said supporter Andy Rosenberg, a lobbyist with Ogilvy Government Relations. “Our efforts right now have to be focused on getting him elected.”

And there is reason to believe that Obama is more measured toward K Street than some of his comments would suggest.

Case in point: a network of about 25 supporters, including some lobbyists, who meet semi-regularly, hosted by McGuire Woods lobbyist Tom Walls. Walls declined to comment. During their most recent meeting, Obama campaign counselor Michael Strautmanis came and talked to the group, according to several people who were at the meeting.

The group discussed the mood of the Obama campaign and volunteer opportunities for the lobbyists. Strautmanis, who did not return an e-mail requesting comment, is himself a one-time registered lobbyist for the Association of Trial Lawyers of America, now called the American Association for Justice.

Participants of the brown-bag luncheon meeting said it was nothing secretive and is something of a support group for lobbyists whose candidate of choice sometimes gives their sector heartburn. Several lobbyists who went to either Iowa or New Hampshire for the candidate in some cases cringed as they listened to Obama announce to cheering crowds that his would not be a White House dominated by people like them.

Even so, a lobbyist with close ties to the Obama campaign said Obama’s message resonates even among some of his colleagues.

“What he’s talking about is truly ending the revolving door and the view that a lot of lobbyists have about public service and profiting from it,” said this lobbyist who has spun through that revolving door.

He added that while some of the rhetoric “does sting a bit, I think that’s good. His campaign is about changing Washington and changing the world.”

This lobbyist said he would welcome the opportunity to work in an Obama administration and would not be deterred by a post- employment ban on lobbying the Obama administration. “It’s worth it to break the revolving door,” he said.

Some lobbyists couldn’t disagree more strongly. Former Rep. Marty Russo (D-Ill.) is supporting Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.) and says he is “sick and tired” of candidates like Obama who are criticizing lobbyists.

And if Obama wins, added Russo, it would hurt Obama’s talent pool if he’s going to lock out certain registered lobbyists.

“Does that mean that people who work for Common Cause or the Consumer Federation of America couldn’t work in his administration?” Russo said. “Lobbying is an honorable profession guaranteed by the United States Constitution. Lobbyists perform a very valuable function in our democratic society.”

Bob Maloney of Maloney Government Relations agreed that some lobbyists find Obama’s K Street policies overly strict. But, the Obama supporter said, lobbyists aren’t the only talented potential administration staffers.

“If it means I couldn’t work in an Obama administration, I’m sorry that particular career option wouldn’t be open to me, but there are plenty of dynamic men and women who could fill those jobs,” Maloney said.