By Matthew Mosk
Washington Post Staff Writer
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."
The rules ban lobbyists from donating to the transition effort and lobbying during the transition period. Once Obama is sworn in, his advisers must wait a year before attempting to lobby the administration on any transition issues they handled.
The code also says that "if someone has lobbied in the last 12 months, they are prohibited from working in the fields of policy on which they lobbied."
That one could be tricky for at least two transition team members. Gitenstein lobbied Congress on a broad spectrum of subjects such as "legal reform" during the past year, according to disclosure reports. As a senior advisory board member, his work could touch on a range of topics that would pose problems for him.
Another senior staff member, Patrick Gaspard, recently de-registered as a lobbyist on health-care issues for the Service Employees International Union. He is the transition team's associate personnel director.
Transition officials declined requests to make Gaspard and Gitenstein available for interviews but said both are adhering to the ethics code.
"Patrick and Mark have jobs on the campaign that are general in nature, but per the unprecedented ethics policy laid out earlier this week they will recuse themselves from the fields of policy or agencies they lobbied in the previous 12 months," said Dan Pfeiffer, the communications director.
Efforts to control influence-peddling go back decades. In the wake of Watergate, Congress passed criminal penalties for senior presidential appointees who, after leaving their posts, lobbied their former colleagues within a year. The law was strengthened in 1988 to cover a wider range of government officials.
During the 1992 presidential campaign, Clinton pledged to toughen the one-year lobbying ban. Hours after his swearing-in, he enacted a five-year ban in an executive order that covered about 1,000 appointees. But in 2000, just before leaving office, he lifted the five-year ban, citing bleak job prospects for many aides in the face of a Republican takeover. Podesta, then the White House chief of staff, drafted Clinton's revocation.
Past president-elects have had differing approaches to the transition period, which presents a unique opportunity for lobbyists to shape government in ways that could help their clients and enhance their own business. President Bush's policy demanded that transition workers avoid conflicts of interest, according to Michael Toner, who was chief counsel to the 2000 transition team.
Toner said excluding lobbyists altogether never struck him as advisable.
"Campaign rhetoric is one thing," he said. "You've got to have serious people who know the inner workings of government."
Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.