Trump’s Lobbying Ban May Not Curb K Street Influence

New loopholes allow recent lobbyists an easy way back into government

Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski recently opened a firm billed as a “full service government affairs and political consulting” outfit, located near the White House. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski recently opened a firm billed as a “full service government affairs and political consulting” outfit, located near the White House. (Al Drago/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted January 31, 2017 at 5:00am

The new administration’s executive order limiting the future lobbying of its officials will do little to “drain the swamp,” as President Donald Trump promised on the campaign trail, ethics watchdogs say.

Political appointees must sign an ethics pledge agreeing not to “engage in lobbying activities” related to their agency for five years, according to a Trump executive order issued Saturday. It also bars departing officials from ever engaging in lobbying, legal or public relations work on behalf of a foreign entity subject to disclosure under a 1938 law known as the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

That lifetime ban on foreign lobbying represents a major shift, but how it — as well as the rest of the executive order — will be carried out is uncertain. “It is particularly difficult to imagine how, and whether, a future administration would enforce this permanent ban,” said William Minor, a partner who focuses on lobbying and ethics law at DLA Piper.

Trump’s lobbying ban loosened restrictions that former President Barack Obama put in place, including a prohibition on hiring officials who had been registered lobbyists in the past two years.

That two-year, look-back ban, among other ethics policies Obama implemented on his first full day in office in 2009, ushered in a series of restrictions that the Democrat said were aimed at shutting the revolving door between K Street and government. Obama’s unprecedented measures did not accomplish that goal.

Trump’s actions are even less likely to curb the flow of aides between the private sector and government, lobbying and ethics watchdogs say.

The new executive order from the Trump administration “represents a step backward from the previous administration’s restrictions” and “continues a disturbing pattern from the Trump White House by significantly reducing transparency and accountability,” said Karen Hobert Flynn, president of the liberal Common Cause.

She also criticized Trump’s executive order for reducing Obama’s post-employment ban on appointees doing nonlobbying work before their old agencies from two years to one year.

New loopholes

The Trump order requires people who were registered as lobbyists in the prior two years before their executive-branch appointments to recuse themselves for two years from “any particular matter on which I lobbied.” The executive order also says it requires political appointees to refuse gifts from registered lobbyists or lobbying organizations.

A bipartisan pair of ethics experts said that Trump’s executive order creates new loopholes, especially by allowing recent lobbyists an easy way back into the government. Obama did grant some exemptions to his ban by issuing waivers, including one for ex-lobbyist Marty Paone, who joined the White House Office of Legislative Affairs in December 2014. Before Obama, there was no such limitation.

The Trump White House website has a section titled “Ethics Pledge Waivers Released by the White House,” but does not currently list any such waivers.

“Lobbyists bring a special interest baggage with them when they pass through the revolving door when they go to work in the agencies they once lobbied,” Norm Eisen, who served as an ethics counsel in the Obama White House, and Richard Painter, who held that role in the George W. Bush administration, said in a joint statement. “It’s as if their former employers have embedded agents of influence in the government.”

Some critics of Obama’s ban on recent lobbyists serving in government argued that it kept out qualified people who had deep expertise in policy.

Though Obama’s strategy on conquering K Street may have fallen short, the former president still influenced the profession — just not the way he said he intended.

Obama helped spark the rise of “unlobbyists” because he subjected registered lobbyists to ridicule that their counterparts who didn’t trigger a 1995 lobbying disclosure law could escape. So some people in the advocacy profession chose not to register under the law, yet still wielded influence for their clients.

Many of Obama’s White House aides, such as former top staffer Pete Rouse, decamped for lobbying and law firms — but as strategic advisers who did not register to lobby. Rouse is now a senior policy adviser at Perkins Coie.

Lobbyists tied to Trump

Already, some Trump insiders have set up shop on K Street.

Former Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski recently opened a firm called Avenue Strategies, billed as a “full service government affairs and political consulting” outfit, located near the White House.

“Our experience allows us to effectively create and manage campaigns on behalf of clients on a wide range of issue and policy areas that require every aspect of a successful campaign,” the company’s website states.

Scott Mason, who served as the Trump campaign’s congressional liaison, joined Holland & Knight last week as a lobbyist.

“I’m uniquely positioned with extraordinary relationships across Capitol Hill but also deep relations within the administration,” said Mason, who helped the Trump transition.

Officials with the Trump transition effort had earlier said that lobbyists who assisted them in setting up the new administration would be subject to a lobbying ban, but the executive order does not mention any limits on those who worked on the transition.

Mason said he is “free and clear” because he has not joined the Trump administration and is not subject to the lobbying ban.