As President Obama begins his first term in office, the former candidate who railed against the influence of lobbyists is now employing former lobbyists, some of whom were working on K Street just a few months ago.
In November 2007, Obama boasted at a campaign event that lobbyists "won't find a job in my White House." He later softened that rhetoric to say that lobbyists "won't dominate" the White House. National Journal therefore is tracking the number of lobbyists in the executive branch. As of January 21, Obama had nominated two recent lobbyists to high-level administration posts, and 12 of the 112 White House staffers that Obama had named had been registered as lobbyists at some point since 2005.
At least a dozen lobbyists worked on Obama's transition team, and at least one member of his national security team was a lobbyist. This trend was worrisome to some watchdog groups until Obama signed an executive order on January 21 setting strict rules on former lobbyists entering his administration and governing what they can do immediately after they leave.
"If you are a lobbyist entering my administration, you will not be able to work on matters you lobbied on or in the agencies that you lobbied during the previous two years," Obama said. "When you leave government, you will not be able to lobby my administration for as long as I am president."
Obama's move was applauded by Craig Holman, the legislative representative for Public Citizen, who called the executive order "a very strong beginning for ethics reform."
Meanwhile, for those on K Street, Obama's willingness to hire lobbyists at all is a vindication of sorts after they had to endure a long election campaign in which they were pummeled over their profession.
"I applaud Obama for facing the reality that he was going to need people who know how Washington works and some of them might just have been lobbyists," said David Wenhold, president of the American League of Lobbyists and co-founder of Miller/Wenhold Capitol Strategies. "It was great in theory for him to say, 'No lobbyists,' but it simply doesn't work in practice."
This month, Obama nominated William V. Corr, executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, to be deputy Health and Human Services secretary. He also tapped William Lynn, vice president of government operations and strategy at Raytheon, to be deputy Defense secretary. Both men were federally registered lobbyists until June 30, 2008.
Expectations are that three other lobbyists or former lobbyists will be nominated for political positions: Richard Verma, a lobbyist for Steptoe & Johnson, is rumored to be in line for the post of assistant secretary for legislative affairs at the State Department; Mark Patterson, who was a lobbyist for Goldman Sachs until April 11, 2008, is being considered for a top job at the Treasury Department; and Mark Gitenstein, who took a leave from Mayer Brown last summer, is said to be Obama's choice to head the Justice Department's Office of Policy -Development.
Still, some see Obama's hiring of lobbyists as disappointing but not entirely unexpected. There were 13,926 active registered lobbyists as of September 30, 2008, according to the Senate Office of Public Records, so it's no surprise that many policy people have lobbied during their years in Washington.
"There are two ways to look at this," said Bill Buzenberg, executive director of the Center for Public Integrity. "Either he is backtracking on his pledge, or it's that to find the best, the most-experienced people, it's impossible to fill these jobs without hiring people who have been lobbyists. It's disappointing either way, but it seems to be the [political] system we have."
Nor are the Obama hires surprising to a number of Democrats on K Street. In mid-2008, the then-candidate's staff began quietly reaching out to some individuals, suggesting that if they terminated their lobbying status or took a leave, they might be considered for administration posts, lobbyists told National Journal.
However, hiring someone who is not "currently" registered but who was lobbying six months ago is a "narrow policy for dealing with conflicts of interest," Holman said. He is particularly concerned about Obama's choice of Lynn at Defense because he can't see how Lynn will be able to recuse himself from policy decisions that might affect Raytheon.
But an Obama spokesman said, "Because Mr. Lynn came so highly recommended from experts across the political spectrum, the president felt it was critical that he fill this position. We are aware that Mr. Lynn lobbied for Raytheon, and are working with Mr. Lynn to craft a role for him that is consistent with the president's high standards while balancing the need to fill this critical national security position." The spokesman also said that Corr would remove himself from working on tobacco-related issues.
CORRECTION: The original version of this story misstated the number of former lobbyists going into the Obama administration.
This article appears in the Jan. 24, 2009, edition of National Journal.