Keystone XL is just one of several upcoming administration decisions providing lucrative work for former Obama advisers on issues ranging from gun control to mining to legalized gambling. Just this week, three of Obama’s top former political advisers — Robert Gibbs, Jim Messina and David Plouffe — were given five-figure checks to deliver remarks at a forum in the former Soviet republic of Azerbaijan, which is in the midst of a campaign to burnish its image in Washington.
Obama came into office promising that his administration would hew to higher standards than his predecessors did. He implemented rules barring former aides from directly lobbying the government for two years and frequently decries the influence of “special interests” in Washington.
But the efforts have done little to slow a tide of groups hiring former top aides as highly paid consultants, speakers and media advisers in an effort to influence the administration — part of a longtime Washington practice in which interest groups seek access to the White House by hiring people who used to work there.
The activities also pose a political challenge for Obama, who will be put in the position of making decisions on Keystone XL and other controversial issues that his former employees have taken sides on.
“Obama’s made a really bold step trying to rein in the revolving door and keep people from cashing in on their executive branch experience, but some people are pushing the envelope and are trying to find ways around that,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen.
In a statement, White House spokesman Eric Schultz said, “Our goal has been to reduce the influence of special interests in Washington — which we’ve done more than any administration in history.”
“These restrictions are intended to avoid conflicts of interests, but do not and should not prohibit former government officials from expressing their opinions or participating in a public exchange of ideas,” he added.
Those who hire former Obama aides say they hope to capitalize on their connections to the White House. The advocacy group Trout Unlimited, for example, hired Tewes, former White House spokesman Tommy Vietor and former speechwriter Jon Favreau this year to help in their efforts against a proposed gold mine near Alaska’s Bristol Bay. The group wants the Environmental Protection Agency to protect a valuable salmon fishery from the proposed mining operation.
“These are people with access to the administration, and we are working to tell the stories of these real people who are struggling to pursue their way of life, and make sure the president hears this and has a good grasp of what’s at stake,” said Shoren Brown, Trout Unlimited’s Bristol Bay campaign director.