A Foot in the Revolving Door

Sunday, November 23, 2008

PRESIDENT-ELECT Barack Obama is executing the pirouette familiar to politicians who inveigh against Washington: First you run against its insiders, then you hire them. During the campaign, the candidate made some overly broad promises about ejecting lobbyists from the government ("When I am president, they won't find a job in my White House") and flayed John McCain for being surrounded by phalanxes of them. Now, as president-elect, he is trying to adjust those declarations to the reality that an absolute ban on lobbyists would be both unnecessary and self-defeating.

The first phase of the incoming administration's rules on lobbyists -- what roles they can play during the transition -- was unveiled last week. The transition is a period fraught with possibilities for influence-peddling, so it makes sense that the rules for this stretch be particularly stringent. Lobbyists who serve as transition advisers can hawk that connection to clients; they can help place administration officials who are indebted to them. To clamp down on such behavior, the transition team has barred lobbyists from providing advice in fields in which they are registered to lobby or have been within the last year. In addition, those who participate in the transition must agree to a one-year ban on lobbying the administration on matters on which they provided advice.

These rules can be criticized as either overly stringent or unduly lax. On the stringent side, it seems silly to prohibit lobbyists from giving advice in the very fields of their expertise; well-qualified advisers will no doubt be excluded as a result. And it seems similarly odd to single out lobbyists for special prohibitions, when, say, union leaders are free under the rules to give advice on the Labor Department transition or pharmaceutical company executives are permitted to participate in the health-care review. Nonetheless, there is, in the aftermath of Jack Abramoff and assorted other lobbying scandals, a credible argument for taking extra steps to insulate the new administration from being influenced by those who make their living seeking government favors. The post-transition rules in particular should help prevent lobbyists from cashing in on their transition work.

The next step for the fledgling administration is to write the rules for lobbyists who join the administration -- and for officials who leave the administration for lucrative lobbying jobs. Candidate Obama vowed to "close the revolving door," telling prospective administration officials that "when you leave, you will not be able to lobby the administration throughout the remainder of my term in office." This could be interesting. President Bill Clinton came into office brandishing an executive order that barred administration officials from lobbying their former colleagues for five years after their departure. On his way out the door, Mr. Clinton revoked the order, arguing that concerns about special access no longer applied. Would Mr. Obama's rule stretch through a second term? Would it prohibit all lobbying or just that involving former officials' departments or matters on which they worked? There are risks in both directions here -- going too far, as well as not far enough.

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