For lucky congressional types, Switzerland beckons

By Al Kamen
Wednesday, March 24, 2010

Great news for congressional staffers who just hadn't had time to decide whether to go on an excellent freebie to Switzerland. Remember that March 2 invite you got from Swiss Ambassador Urs Ziswiler for a week-long tour of "this Alpine powerhouse," a land that's "all about thriving cutting-edge technology in beautiful landscapes"?

The May 29-to-June 5 trip, courtesy of the Swiss, is totally legit under the 1961 Mutual Educational and Cultural Exchange Act. Sure, the nightlife is nothing to brag about; the food is fine, though maybe not particularly haute; and the weather in the Alps -- peak ski season would be over -- will still be a bit nippy.

But it's free, and it offers "the opportunity to network" with Swiss lawmakers and business leaders, Guillaume Scheurer, deputy chief of mission, wrote in a follow-up e-mail Friday. You can discuss banking issues or the country's national militia, where every member is required to keep his weapon at home. (A Swiss variant of "must-carry"?) There's shopping galore in the home of the Swatch and other fine timepieces and precision instruments.

Scheurer noted that participants will get "close encounters with educational and cultural projects," though he didn't specify how close such encounters might be. For example, you want to steer clear of those alphorns if they start swinging them around.

We're told you'll get to experience "culinary delights and Swiss hospitality." If you prefer, it's only about 70 miles and $35 by train to Lyon for dinner. (Try Paul Bocuse, hideously expensive but excellent. Or maybe Alain Chapel.)

Congressional folks have been a bit busy of late, unable to focus on the possibilities and apparently unable to decide by the March 19 deadline whether to go. Not to worry, Scheurer wrote. "At the request of many," he wrote, the deadline was extended a week. It's the 12th, and possibly the best, congressional staff tour to Switzerland. Don't miss it.

Yodeling lessons optional.

The back door

The Obama White House, citing its tough revolving-door rules -- especially on lobbyists -- has turned down hundreds and hundreds of folks looking for administration jobs. The rules, which bar appointees from dealing with matters they'd worked on in the private sector, applied even if applicants had worked in nonprofit groups -- or even Democratic-allied organizations.

The ban covers only the last two years before your government job. (Hey! If you severed your ties around the start of the Obama era, the wait's almost over, so get those résumés dusted off.)

Some agency heads, thinking the pool of skilled candidates too reduced, early on tried to find ways to dodge President Obama's edict. Some exceptions were made, notably for Deputy Secretary of Defense Bill Lynn, and for public interest folks such as longtime La Raza official Cecilia Muñoz, who now runs the White House intergovernmental affairs operation, and Jocelyn Frye, former general counsel at the National Partnership for Women and Families, now a top aide to Michelle Obama.

But then the waivers dried up.

Under a strict-constructionist view, the rules -- which some consider a virtual ban -- could mean someone like Reta J. Lewis, a veteran lobbyist and Democratic political strategist who worked in the Clinton administration, would not be eligible for certain jobs.

Seems Lewis, who worked for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where she focused on minority- and women-owned businesses, and then with a law firm, was a registered lobbyist up until the summer of 2008, when she worked for a nonprofit helping lower-income folks buy affordable housing. It might be that, under the two-year rule and depending on the contours of her job, she wouldn't be eligible to work in the administration for another few months.

But she's already begun work at the State Department as special assistant for global intergovernmental affairs in Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton's office. (And we are told there's no ethics concerns.)

Still, eyebrows were raised in the White House when it was learned that Lewis had been brought in to Foggy Bottom as a Schedule B "excepted service" -- not civil service -- appointment, which is something not customarily used for political appointees. Some suspected that maybe Hillaryland was trying to put someone into a political appointee job without having to confront the dreaded ethics police in the White House counsel's office.

Schedule B jobs are very flexible appointments -- regulations vary from agency to agency. They might be reserved for "experts" who need to be brought on quickly. Or they can be used for interns or other student employees as a career-development move. The FBI and the CIA have only "excepted service" jobs, according to the Office of Personnel Management.

These appointments, one personnel veteran noted, also can be used to help an agency if it needs an expert to, for example, eradicate a rare strain of Finnish birch-tree disease that causes fires in saunas. So, without going through all the rigmarole and paperwork, you quickly hire Professor Vayreynen of Suonenjoki, Finland, as a Schedule B to work the issue.

Moving up

Lisa Garcia, formerly an aide to John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) in the Senate and on the 2004 presidential campaign and more recently assistant U.S. trade representative for intergovernmental affairs, has moved up to be chief of staff in the trade rep's office. She replaces former Obama campaign finance director Julianna Smoot, who recently became White House social secretary.

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