The Rose Garden: Lobbyists Feel a Chilly Breeze From White House

Posted January 23, 2009 at 6:08pm

President Barack Obama’s new rules restricting the employment of lobbyists are viewed by many on K Street as effectively a ban, with both the spirit and the letter of the order making it nearly impossible for lobbyists who would take senior positions in government to enter public service.

[IMGCAP(1)]While there are ways to finesse the rules, the ban on lobbyists ever petitioning the administration makes it unlikely that those with broad practices or who work for major corporations could take positions. Such people generally occupy senior-level posts, a near-requirement to make it worthwhile to suspend lucrative careers.

“I haven’t seen anybody in the administration with any interest in hiring a lobbyist,” one Democratic lobbyist said. “And people on the outside see it as a virtual ban. No one I know who is a lobbyist is figuring out a way to get in.”

With the new rules, Obama appears to be making good on his promise to end the “revolving door” through which lobbyists travel to cash in on their administration contacts. But he is treading down the unprecedented path of denying an administration the experience of people well-versed in the arcane art of getting things done in Washington, D.C.

Licking their wounds in their K Street suites, some lobbyists point to the critical role played by their colleagues in previous White Houses — including the Herculean efforts of Nick Calio, legislative affairs chief for former President George W. Bush, to ram Bush’s early agenda through Congress and the smart counsel provided former President Bill Clinton by Steve Ricchetti toward the end of his term.

Of course, lobbyists could simply work Capitol Hill and avoid lobbying the administration. But for big wheels seeking to sign up numerous clients or hoping to run a corporate office with Congressional and regulatory challenges, the need to lobby the administration is clear — and the incentives for staying away from a job with the Obama team are quite substantial.

Other business operatives in town note a general feeling from the administration that they are not wanted, and even if they are hired, it would be frowned upon if they simply returned to their old profession upon leaving the administration.

And there is also concern that the stipulation against lobbying what could be an eight-year administration could keep them from being hired.

When the ban was for a shorter period under previous administrations, “that was viewed by a lobbying firm as an investment of time and money with a return at a fairly early date,” one lobbyist said.

But you can expect some lobbyists to trickle in anyway.

A veteran operative with numerous contacts throughout Washington said he is aware of several lobbyists who want to work in the administration and are looking for jobs on Capitol Hill in order to “get clean.”

Because the Obama restrictions apply to those who have lobbied within two years of their appointment, a two-year stint as a Congressional aide removes the taint.

Lobbyists can also sign on as “strategic advisers” to firms after departing the Obama administration, opting not to register as lobbyists but instead provide a road map of the administration to colleagues who do. An outfit that picks off a senior former Obama official as a strategist immediately becomes that rare thing, “an Obama firm,” as one lobbyist put it.

But the allure of affixing your nameplate on the door of a firm and simply providing guidance and pointing to doors that might open is limited. While ex-Senators and the like with client-generating cachet may be able to get away with it, most others cannot.

“At the end of the day, the reason a person gets paid is not just for offering strategic advice,” another top Democratic lobbyist said. “People pay you for talking to government people.”

But others note the roles of strategic advisers and registered lobbyists are becoming increasingly unclear.

One registered lobbyist noted with some frustration the sight of an acquaintance who is not a lobbyist but who seems very much like one.

“I asked him, ‘Are you a lobbyist?’ and he said, ‘no,’” this source recalled. “But he talks to Members of Congress all the time. He told me, ‘I’m allowed to give my opinion on things.’”

And sources said Congressional staffers, many of whom start to itch for a spot on K Street as their children begin to multiply, might nevertheless take jobs in the administration for the adventure of it, at least — even if they do hope to eventually land on K Street.

“I think the call of public service is too strong,” said Ivan Schlager, a partner at Skadden Arps. Given the luster of the new administration, the desire to join it “would outweigh any concerns about post-government employment,” Schlager said.

And then, of course, there are the exceptions. One day after announcing the rules, the administration got started with the exceptions when William Lynn III, the top lobbyist for Raytheon Co., was tapped to be deputy secretary of Defense. The White House will have to waive rules that require hired lobbyists not work in areas where they have lobbied — in order for him to have something to do in his new job.

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the exceptions to the rules would be “limited.” Asked what that means, he replied: “I don’t have anything more than ‘limited number.’”