K Street moves to counter ‘purity’ test for Biden administration

Minority lobbyists say blanket ban could hurt diversity

Some liberal activists railed against the selection of Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., for a post in the Biden administration because of his past acceptance of campaign contributions from the oil industry. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Some liberal activists railed against the selection of Rep. Cedric Richmond, D-La., for a post in the Biden administration because of his past acceptance of campaign contributions from the oil industry. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)
Posted November 18, 2020 at 11:36am

As President-elect Joe Biden’s administration begins to roll out its earliest hires and seek candidates for powerful jobs across the government, the Democratic Party’s left-wing activists and its K Street insiders are waging a battle over who should be eligible.

Progressive groups want the incoming administration to reject applicants they view as too cozy with corporate America, but Black and Latino lobbyists are mounting a counteroffensive, arguing that such prohibitions could limit diversity in the executive branch. 

The transition team has indicated that incoming officials will sign an ethics pledge, but the details regarding previous employment remain unclear.

“To make a blanket statement that we won’t take anybody from a corporation, you start to limit who your candidates can be,” said Cristina Antelo, founder of the lobbying firm Ferox Strategies.

Minority lobbyists may not have benefited from family wealth, she said, and therefore may have made career decisions that wouldn’t meet a “purity” test of only working in the public or nonprofit sectors.

Antelo, who is Latino, wrote an opinion piece with fellow lobbyist Paul Thornell, who is Black, advising the incoming administration to prioritize diversity and not limit future officials because of past corporate work. Other minority lobbyists are making the same case.   

“If you’re going to be able to have diversity in the administration from top to bottom, the way that Biden and Harris have talked about it, you need to look at all of the expertise that’s available,” Nicole Venable, a lobbyist with the firm Invariant, who is Black, said during a webinar sponsored by CQ Roll Call parent company FiscalNote. “And that includes people who work for corporations and who are registered lobbyists.”

Progressive activists dismiss such arguments. 

“The implication here is deeply insulting that the talent pool among people of color is so shallow that we have to pull from corporate America,” said Shawn Sebastian, senior strategist with People’s Action. “It is absolutely wrong that the only way to achieve diversity is through the corporate revolving door.” 

Morgan Harper, a senior adviser with the American Economic Liberties Project, another group urging the Biden administration to reject would-be officials with corporate or K Street pasts, agrees. The effort by minority lobbyists amounts to “trying to promote corporate interests and maintain a status quo,” said Harper, who is Black.

Calling on Congress 

The Washington Government Relations Group, an association for Black lobbyists, took its plea recently to members of the Congressional Black Caucus, including Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, a five-term lawmaker from Louisiana. Richmond announced Tuesday that he would join the Biden administration as a senior adviser to the president and director of the White House Office of Public Engagement. 

The group wrote in a letter to CBC members that it was “disheartened by the ongoing discourse regarding registered lobbyists serving our country in a Biden-Harris administration.” The group, which noted that its members could “bring the long overdue diversity necessary” for the administration to tackle race and gender matters, asked CBC members to “advocate for us.”

Danielle McBath, president of the Washington Government Relations Group, said she is optimistic the incoming administration “is taking a thoughtful approach in addressing this issue in light of the concerns highlighted in our letter as well as those conveyed by our diverse partner associations.”

Richmond, though, quickly came under attack from liberal groups, including Justice Democrats and the Sunrise Movement, which criticized his White House appointment because he has accepted legal campaign contributions from corporate PACs in the oil and gas sector. Varshini Prakash, a founder of Sunrise, called the Richmond appointment “a betrayal” in a statement Tuesday.   

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Biden-Harris transition team spokespeople did not comment on the matter, but there is some indication the incoming administration may be looking at crafting a lobbying ban along the lines of the Obama administration’s prohibition on hiring anyone who had been a registered federal lobbyist in the two years prior to joining the administration. The policy allowed for applicants to get a waiver in some cases. 

Lobbyists need not apply?

An online portal where interested potential administration hires can submit their information asks whether the person is “a registered lobbyist or have you been a registered lobbyist in the past 24 months?” The Biden-Harris transition also has stressed its intention to hire a racially diverse team across the executive branch. 

Jeff Hauser, who runs the Revolving Door Project, says this is a “moment we’ve been preparing for for quite a while” and he has been aggressively pushing the nascent administration to keep out not just recently registered lobbyists but also others with a corporate background, including unregistered lobbyists or corporate executives who seek to influence public policy. 

He and his allies are working on a draft executive order that runs eight pages in a Google document and would include an ethics pledge, a revolving door ban and restrictions that would limit departing Biden administration officials from some lobbying activities for five years.  

Their ban on incoming aides would differ from the Obama administration’s, however, because that policy applied to lobbyists for unions and liberal nonprofit organizations, and Hauser argues there should be a distinction based on type of client.

“We entirely reject public interest lobbyists being used as human shields by corporate lobbyists,” Hauser said. “We don’t think lobbying is bad, we think corporate lobbying is bad.”

The future Biden administration isn’t the only venue for this disagreement among Democratic constituencies. Hauser’s group and more than 60 others sent a letter Monday to House Democrats, who are selecting their committee heads and leaders, urging rejection of any members for leadership positions and some committee gavels if the lawmaker accepted donations in excess of $200 from executives, lobbyists and PACs in the fossil fuel, food, agribusiness and financial services sectors, according to the letter. 

As that would disqualify most of House Democrats’ leadership slate, it is likely to be ignored — but it offers a marker for the demands of progressive activists as Democrats navigate their party’s internal divisions. 

Still, even with all the internal conflict and pressure on the Biden team, corporate lobbyists say they already feel as if the incoming administration has an open ear. 

“We’re hopeful that we won’t find ourselves in tension with the Biden administration, but we know there are likely to be areas of disagreement,” Joshua Bolten, president and CEO of the Business Roundtable, said during a call with reporters Tuesday. “We think this will be an administration that will listen to different points of view and give us a fair shot to make our case.”