The sound of campaign promises breaking

January 29, 2009 in Politics

One day after being inaugurated, President Obama made good on his campaign pledge to stop the "revolving door" and bar lobbyists from participating in his administration.  Obama's executive order covering Ethics Commitments by Executive Branch Personnel took effect on January 21, 2009, preventing anyone who had served as a registered lobbyist for the last 2 years from serving in his administration.  

In November 2007, Obama stated:

"I am in this race to tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over. I have done more than any other candidate in this race to take on lobbyists and won. They have not funded my campaign, they will not run my White House, and they will not drown out the voices of the American people when I am president."

And upon signing his executive order into law, he restated:

"If you are a lobbyist entering my administration, you will not be able to work on matters you lobbied on, or in the agencies you lobbied, during the previous two years.... [This is] a clean break from business as usual."

But so much can change in a week.  Three recent lobbyists are set to take high level positions in the Obama White House, and many more surround the President.  The word hypocrisy comes to mind.

The first, William Corr, was actually announced before the executive order took effect, so maybe we can let that one by. Obama has picked Corr to be the deputy secretary at the Health and Human Services Department.  Corr previously was the executive director of an anti-tobacco firm, and he has graciously announced he will not participate in tobacco decisions while in Obama's cabinet.  And that's fine, because it's not as if tobacco is a concern of the health department or anything.

The second lobbyist, William Lynn, is causing a considerable stir in Washington since he has been picked as the  the Deputy Secretary of Defense.  As recently as last year, Lynn was a the top lobbyist at Raytheon Corporation, the Pentagon's fifth-largest contractor.  According to Obama's executive order, Lynn is banned from working for any of the following: the House, the Senate, the Department of Defense, the Department of Homeland Security,  NASA, the NSA, the CIA, the Department of the Treasury, the Department of Labor, the Department of State, the FAA, the Department of Energy, and a handful of others.  Needless to say, he may find it necessary to interact with a few of those off-limit departments in his new role as the number 2 official in the Defense Department.

And now Geithner wants to get in on the fun - our beleaguered Secretary of the Treasury has selected Mark Patterson, an ex-lobbyist for Goldman Sachs (they used to be an investment bank) as his Chief of Staff.  As recently as last spring, he was lobbying on many issues, including "covered bonds, tax treatment of corporate reorganization transactions, nonbinding shareholder votes on executive compensation, continuation of the industrial loan company charter for Goldman Sachs, over-the-counter energy derivatives, tax patents, extension of tax credits for cellulosic ethanol and market disruptions regarding auction rate securities...." Fortunately, however,

Patterson only monitored legislation on mortgage issues and did not lobby, added the Treasury official, who was not authorized to speak about the matter on the record.

Even that most liberal bastion of press, the Huffington Post, is jumping on Obama (great headline: Obama Lobbyist Rule Doesn't Apply to Lobbyists: Obama).  I must admit that, true to form, they have also come up with an opinion which somehow conflates "It was wrong. It's not defensible. It is blatantly hypocritical." with "And I am trying to figure out how to muster up enough bother to care."  The author finds that it's okay to ignore these transgressions because in his opinion they pale in comparison to a) Bush-era hypocricy and b) more threatening problems like terrorism and the economy.  And here I thought we finally had a government accountable at every level. Ah, to be naive.

But the revolving door doesn't stop there!  Politico identifies a slew of lobbyists who occupyr tob spots in the Obama cabinet (note that some on this list are not in violation of the executive order because they have not been registered lobbyists in the last two years):

Eric Holder, attorney general (lobbyist until 2004)

Tom Vilsack, Secretary of Agriculture (lobbyist until 2008)

David Hayes, Deputy Secretary of the Interior (lobbyist until 2006)

Ron Klain, Chief of Staff to the Vice President (lobbyist until 2005)

Mona Sutphen, Deputy White House Chief of Staff (lobbyist until 2003)

Melody Barnes, Domest Policy Council Director (lobbyist until 2004)

Cecilia Munoz, White House Director of Intergovernmental Affairs (lobbyist until 2008)

Patrick Gaspard, White House Political Affairs Director (lobbyist until 2008)

Michael Strautmanis, Chief of Staff ot the President's Assistant for Intergovernmental Relations (lobbyist until 2005)

The Washington Post also voiced similar concerns about Obama's transition team as early as last November.

The key here is not that these people are bad at their jobs.  In fact, given some of the high-level lobbyist positions they have held, they are likely very good at their jobs.  However, they are not so incredible at their jobs (the White House is defending them as "uniquely qualified individuals") that their selection warrants a flagrant disregard for the law -- much less a week-old law signed by this very president!  There are many qualified people out there who don't require such an offense.  In fact, none of this would be surprising if not for President Obama's firm insistance that his administration is pursuing a new and different course.  

It is hard to say one thing and do another when you have created a wonderfully transparent adminsitration.  Those living in a glass White House shouldn't throw stones.

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