Lobbying Rules Surpass Those of Previous Presidents, Experts Say

By Dan Eggen and R. Jeffrey Smith
Washington Post Staff Writers
Thursday, January 22, 2009

New lobbying and records rules issued by President Obama yesterday appear to go beyond changes implemented by previous presidents, and could usher in an era of openness in federal government, according to ethics experts and open-government advocates.

In two executive orders and three presidential directives, Obama laid out stringent lobbying limits that will bar any appointees from seeking lobbying jobs while he is president and will ban gifts from lobbyists to anyone in the administration. He also ordered agencies to presume that records should be publicly released unless there are compelling reasons not to do so, and he loosened restrictions on the release of records related to former presidents and vice presidents.

Open-government advocates described the moves as a sharp departure from the policies of former president George W. Bush and former vice president Richard B. Cheney, who sought to shield details about White House inner workings from public view and imposed public records restrictions.

Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, said the lobbying restriction "constitutes a major step in setting a new tone and attitude for Washington that challenges the lobbyist, special interest culture."

Obama, who campaigned with a promise of government transparency, said in remarks that "the way to make government responsible is to hold it accountable."

Steve Aftergood, director of the Project on Government Secrecy at the Federation of American Scientists, said it was "astonishing" that Obama issued such directives on his first day. But, he added, "it has to be the beginning of a process that translates the policy into practice, and that has proved to be a challenge."

The lobbying limitations also appear to be considerably broader than those other presidents imposed, experts said.

Two days after his 1993 inauguration, Bill Clinton barred senior appointees from leaving and then, at any time in the next five years, lobbying former colleagues in the agency where they had worked. He reversed the order a month before leaving office, as aides complained of difficulty finding jobs.

Obama's order applies more broadly to "every appointee in every executive agency," barring them from leaving and then lobbying any other executive branch official or senior appointee for the remainder of his administration. The rule also bars new officials from making policy on any matter involving their former employer or clients for a period of two years, or from working at an agency they lobbied within the past two years. "We should never forget that we are here as public servants," Obama said.

Obama's remarks evoked criticism from the Republican National Committee, which noted that Obama has nominated William J. Lynn III, a former Raytheon lobbyist, as deputy secretary of defense. Lobbying reports filed by Raytheon with the Senate states that Lynn was part of a group that lobbied Congress and the Pentagon in 2007 and 2008. White House officials did not respond to requests for comment.

In a separate order, Obama mandated more openness for presidential records following a congressionally established five-year waiting period after any president leaves office. The order permits a review by the attorney general and the White House counsel of claims by former presidents that information should be withheld under the doctrine of "executive privilege." It also leaves the final decision in the hands of the incumbent president -- not the former president, as provided in a 2001 order from Bush.

Anne Weismann, counsel for Citizens for Ethics and Responsibility in Washington, a nonprofit group, said the order signals "a return to the rule of law" and adherence to the terms that Congress originally spelled out in the Presidential Records Act.

Staff researcher Madonna Lebling contributed to this report.

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