Working Their Way Into the White House

Posted November 14, 2008 at 5:40pm

Ever the creative lot, lobbyists facing tough restrictions on entering the Obama administration are eyeing inventive routes to getting on the inside — despite their K Street taint.

A few have taken steps to de-register and become “consultants,” while other lobbyists are flirting with the idea of a cleansing return to Capitol Hill.

While not yet set in stone, the Obama camp has long said it would not hire registered lobbyists to work in issue areas that they have lob-

bied on for the previous two years.

That means a lobbyist for pharmaceutical interests would most likely be blocked out of health care policy positions, but perhaps could have a shot at a job in, say, transportation policy or legislative affairs.

“There’s a lot of flux right now in the job market,” said John Merrigan, co-chairman of the federal affairs practice group at law and lobbying firm DLA Piper. “Right now, it’s hard to expect Democrats to make any types of serious choices because they’ve got so many options. Within weeks, it’ll become clear.”

Still, even for those lobbyists who can navigate the hurdles of joining the administration, there’s another drawback to make them wary of signing up: the Obama administration’s post-employment lobby restrictions.

Obama’s team has said that once officials depart the new administration, they would not be permitted to lobby the executive branch for the duration of the 44th president’s tenure in office.

There’s also the sheer tediousness of getting an executive branch job.

One Democratic lobbyist and former Congressional staffer said that even in the best situations, with no restrictions for lobbyists, appointments to executive branch jobs can take months to secure. “It’s a long vetting process,” this lobbyist said.

And that vetting process will be even longer and potentially more complicated for lobbyists who have represented multiple clients on myriad issues.

The restrictions, in fact, have probably staunched what many had feared would be a massive exodus out of downtown firms and into the government.

“We encourage folks to do public service,” said Stuart Pape, the managing partner of one of the city’s biggest law lobbying firms, Patton Boggs.

But, “I don’t think Democratic lobbyists have many executive branch options,” said Pape, who worked at the Food and Drug Administration in the 1970s. “Our expectations about the number of folks we’d lose dropped dramatically.”

Several lobbyists, who would not speak for attribution, said they would consider Capitol Hill jobs not just for the experience of being inside the legislative action, but for the larger strategic purpose of helping them make a smoother transition into the Obama administration a couple of years down the road.

There are no restrictions, of course, for exiting Hill staffers who want to work in the administrations — unless, of course, you were a lobbyist less than a year earlier.

When Democrats won control of Congress in 2006, for example, several K Streeters made their way back to coveted jobs in the majority, including Dan Turton, who had been a lobbyist at Timmons and Co. Inc. and went to run the House Rules Committee, and former Quinn Gillespie & Associates lobbyist Michael Hacker, now an aide to Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.).

Both Turton and Hacker’s names have been floated as potential Obama administration pickups.

But most lobbyists said going back to the Hill, especially as a staging area for an administration job, would take too much time and too much potential money for most lobbyists to consider.

“If you don’t have a mortgage and kids, you’re trying to get back in,” said Kelly Bingel, a partner at Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti Inc. “People who are going back in are doing it for policy and not to enhance their lobbying credentials.”

Some K Streeters, meanwhile, are trying to have it both ways by de-registering as federal lobbyists but continuing to represent clients as a consultant.

Zina Pierre, a former Clinton administration official who started the Washington Linkage Group Inc., is one such example. She told a Washington Government Relations Group panel last week that she would no longer register as a federal lobbyist. But her firm will continue to advise clients. Pierre did not return calls seeking comment.

Perhaps such moves aren’t necessary, though.

One Democratic lobbyist said members of Obama’s transition team are lobbyists or have worked with lobbyists and are not as anti-K Street as some might expect. This lobbyist pointed also to Obama’s newly selected chief of staff, Rep. Rahm Emanuel (D-Ill.), as cozy with the downtown crowd.

“Rahm Emanuel loves lobbyists,” this source said. “Lobbyists are going through people on the transition who have not made a fuss about lobbyists. Some of the folks on the transition team have worked with lobbyists a lot. I think it’s one of those things where they’ll tone down the rhetoric a bit. It was a great campaign talking point.”

And even if the Obama team doesn’t tone down the rhetoric about lobbyists, a supply of K Streeters will always clamor for the administration jobs.

Just ask Gary LaPaille, president of mCapitol Management and a former Illinois state Senator and Illinois Democratic Party chairman in the 1990s.

LaPaille was in talks to recruit a new Democratic hire to his firm, someone with strong ties to the Land of Lincoln and Obama’s aides.

“Well, he told me Monday he’s going to try to get into the administration,” LaPaille said.

But LaPaille said that while it may be a difficult time to recruit Democrats, he’s looking for deals on GOPers.

“There may be some good bargain basement sales,” he said. “Staff people who are out of work or [Republican] lobbyists that are in firms or groups that decide to go more Democratic and ask them to leave.

“If they have a book of business, they’re welcome, be they a Democrat or a Republican, or if they have any entrepreneurship in them and are willing to go out there and market their services.”