Obama Isn’t Tapping K Street Talent Pool

Posted April 20, 2009 at 6:41pm

In the aftermath of hypocrisy alarms that sounded early in his administration over personnel picks that seemed contrary to his vow to halt the “revolving door,— President Barack Obama is mostly eschewing the reservoir of Washington, D.C., veterans on K Street that served as a deep pool of talent for recent presidents.

Obama was elected on a vow to change Washington, in part by ending the hopscotching between the executive branch and private sector that he said was corrupting power with money. He kept lobbyists out of his transition, promised to curb their influence on his administration and quickly established tough new rules limiting their ability to work for him.

Democratic lobbyists grumbled privately that the “No Help Wanted— sign had been posted firmly along the path from K Street to 1600 Pennsylvania Ave.

But less than a week after he was inaugurated, Obama began to roll out exceptions to his own rules. He acquiesced to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner’s decision to install former Goldman Sachs lobbyist Mark Patterson as his chief of staff. The move came just days after Obama waived his lobbying restrictions to allow William Lynn, who had lobbied for a defense contractor just last year, to serve as deputy Defense secretary.

But most of the candidates recently chosen have been plucked from worlds far off K Street, particularly academia, think tanks, nonprofits and state governments.

“Obviously they screwed up at the beginning,— said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. “They’ve been afraid to hire lobbyists ever since.—

Technically, Obama has not banned the hiring of lobbyists. The rules are that lobbyists who take jobs in the administration cannot work on the areas in which they lobbied or for the agency that they lobbied for the past two years. After leaving government, they are barred from lobbying the administration for as long as Obama remains president.

But many lobbyists view the restrictions as, at worst, an effective ban on getting into the administration and, at best, a clear message that their duties are somewhat sickening to the new president.

Sloan was critical of the “blanket— nature of the administration’s resistance to hiring lobbyists, noting that even lobbyists for nonprofits are feeling the cold shoulder and that some business lobbyists are experts in their fields.

“There are some people who are not working who probably would be good,— Sloan said. “Not every lobbyist is an evil person.— She added, though, that she thought many of those entering the administration appeared to be good choices.

Sloan also noted that someone who toils as a “consultant— for Washington firms, getting doors opened and providing advice without registering as a lobbyist, could get a job, while someone lobbying for an environmental firm — and presumably pushing polices that Obama admires — could not.

Indeed, criticism of Obama’s selection of former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) as secretary of Health and Human Services centered on his consultancy work — before tax problems unexpectedly sank his nomination.

Sloan said the beefed-up restrictions that Obama put into place limiting the influence of people who become lobbyists after they leave the administration were probably sufficient to shut down the “revolving door.—

Emblematic of the more careful approach was Obama’s move a month ago to fill three critical posts at Treasury. Under pressure to get the agency staffed up while the economy flails, Obama went with Washington hands who somehow have no recent lobbying experience.

He tapped Neal Wolin to be deputy Treasury secretary and Lael Brainard to be undersecretary of Treasury for international affairs, both former senior Clinton administration officials.

He also announced that Stuart Levey, the undersecretary for terrorism and financial intelligence, would remain in place.

One of the rare recent exceptions to the prevailing caution was still done cautiously: Obama said last week that he wants to install Daniel Poneman as deputy Energy secretary.

Poneman performed lobbying services for a limited number of clients as an employee of Hogan & Hartson from 1998 to 2001, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks lobbying by individuals over the past 10 years. A bio of Poneman provided by the White House fails to mention Poneman’s lobbying activities.

After 2001, he shifted to consulting for the Washington-based Scowcroft Group, which touts its business and government relationships. His bio with the group says that he “provides strategic advice to the clients in the energy, aerospace, information technology, and manufacturing.—

More typical is the choice Monday of Cass Sunstein to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs at the Office of Management and Budget.

Sunstein is the Felix Frankfurter professor of law at Harvard University.