IT SEEMED LIKE A GOOD IDEA AT THE TIME…. Banning lobbyists from working in the administration sounded great, didn’t it? The idea of a revolving door between K Street and the White House is entirely inconsistent with the kind of politics President Obama prefers, so his ban on jobs for lobbyists was part of the broader change agenda.
The problem, though, is that there are lobbyists and there are lobbyists. Hiring an ExxonMobil lobbyist to work at the Energy Department is unappealing, and exactly the kind of politics we had under Bush/Cheney. But what about hiring someone for HHS who represented nurses’ interests on the Hill? Or maybe someone for the Justice Department who lobbied against torture? Someone for Labor who did advocacy for workers?
Ryan Grim reports today on the problems associated with a sweeping ban that excludes some people who would otherwise be ideal.
The implementation of that rule, however, has led to a number of consequences that Obama could never have intended. Eliminating lobbyists from consideration drains the pool of progressive talent that the White House needs at a time when agencies and departments are severely understaffed. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, for instance, barely has any deputies as the economy continues to spiral out of control.
Lobbyists who for years have fought for workers’ rights, environmental protection, human rights, pay-equity for women, consumer protection and other items on the Obama agenda have found the doors to the White House HR department slammed shut. In the past, several progressive lobbyists explained, there was no reason not to register if there was a slim chance that the law might require it. Obama’s new policy changes the calculus, leading folks to deregister as federal lobbyists or consider other employment while they wait out the policy’s required two-year separation from lobbying.
It’s a bit of a mess. Qualified people can’t even apply for jobs — positions that need to be filled, sooner rather than later — because they did some advocacy work in their field during the Bush years. They were on the right side of the issue, did quality work, and followed all the ethical rules, but can’t even send in a resume until 2011.
At the same time, the ban also discourages young progressive people from entering advocacy, which isn’t good either. As one nonprofit lobbyist told Grim, “Heaven help us that there’s never another anti-worker, anti-poor-people administration, but my gut tells me there will be. And the last thing you want is to not have people on the front lines to defend the things that this administration wants to put into place, if they think they’re going to be discriminated against in terms of future employment.”
Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.) suggested the White House’s ban should acknowledge distinctions: “I think if you lobbied for a public interest it’s a whole different thing than if you lobbied for a special interest.”
That is, of course, easier said than done, since every lobbyist can make the case that their work serves the public’s interests.
The result is a bit of a mess. If the administration drops the ban, it will catch hell for weakening the ethical guidelines the president promised. If officials keep the ban, the administration will continue to struggle to fill key posts, and lock out qualified, talented people whose services are needed.