Some Former Lobbyists Have Key Roles in Obama Transition
Saturday, November 15, 2008
Barack Obama campaigned on a pledge to change Washington, vowing to upend the K Street lobbying culture he encountered when he joined the U.S. Senate.
But more than a dozen members of President-elect Obama's fast-growing transition team have worked as federally registered lobbyists within the past four years. They include former lobbyists for the nation's trial lawyers association, mortgage giant Fannie Mae, drug companies such as Amgen, high-tech firms such as Microsoft, labor unions and the liberal advocacy group Center for American Progress.
Mark Gitenstein, one of the 12 transition board members who will play a significant role in shaping the Obama administration, worked on million-dollar lobbying contracts with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and promoted legislation for giant defense contractors Boeing and General Dynamics. Until this fall, he was registered to petition Congress and the Securities and Exchange Commission on behalf of AT&T, Merrill Lynch, KPMG, Ernst & Young and others.
Gitenstein has blue-chip credentials for the volunteer role on the Obama team. He was chief Democratic counsel for the Senate Judiciary Committee during confirmation hearings for controversial Supreme Court nominee Robert H. Bork; was a close adviser to Vice President-elect Joseph R. Biden Jr.'s White House bid; and served as counsel to the Senate Intelligence Committee.
But his presence is also a reminder that Obama's campaign pledge to keep his distance from the Washington lobbying culture may be tougher to fulfill than he anticipated.
"Nothing is going to change," said Lanny Davis, a former special counsel to President Bill Clinton who did lobbying work for a range of companies after leaving the White House.
"From George Washington to George W. Bush, there has been a role for the lobbyist that is perfectly appropriate and good for democracy. The notion that there is something wrong per se with lobbying is ridiculous. But I favor more transparency and disclosure -- online, in real time, for all lobbyists."
The number of former lobbyists involved in Obama's transition thus far is small compared with the past two transition teams, but they occupy several key positions. They include Biden's incoming chief of staff, Ron Klain, who was signed up to lobby for Fannie Mae until 2005, and transition co-chair John Podesta, who lobbied for the Center for American Progress until 2006.
After serving as a top aide to Clinton and Vice President Al Gore, Klain represented a company facing asbestos-exposure lawsuits, the embattled drugmaker ImClone and two companies trying to win support for large mergers. His completed his last lobbying assignment, helping Fannie Mae with "regulatory issues," in late 2004.
Obama's formal policy during the campaign indicated that there may be some role for lobbyists in his administration, though his rhetoric did not always convey that. In a 2007 speech, he said he was "running to tell the lobbyists in Washington that their days of setting the agenda are over. They have not funded my campaign. They won't work in my White House."
A few days later, he changed the phrasing to say that lobbyists "are not going to dominate my White House."
Among the first acts of Obama's transition effort was the release of a formal policy on lobbyists, which Podesta described as "the strictest and most far-reaching . . . of any transition in history."