With Democrats running the show in Washington and President Obama pledging to block most lobbyists from the White House, the revolving door is in full effect for Democrats — but it’s spinning in reverse.
Some Democrats who had found refuge on K Street during the Bush administration and now have their eyes on 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. are trying to wash off the lobbying taint with a pit stop on Capitol Hill — in some cases at half the pay.
“I’ll cleanse myself there and then go to the administration,” said one Democratic lobbyist who is trying to find a job as chief of staff to a senator.
“Any Democrat who is worth their salt in this town wants to go work for the administration,” said the lobbyist. “But they’re just not talking to us. I’ve tried to e-mail someone I know in the administration and he won’t even return my e-mails.”
But while the White House door may be closed to them, another has opened. In the past month, more than a dozen high-ranking Democratic Hill staffers — including Dan Turton, staff director of the House Rules Committee; Sean Kennedy, chief of staff to Sen. Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.); and Jay Heimbach, chief of staff to Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) — have left Congress for the White House.
To replace that talent, lawmakers and senior aides are now reviewing a flood of résumés for chiefs of staff, committee staff directors and legislative directors.
“It’s competitive,” said one Senate chief of staff who has reviewed a slew of résumés in recent days. More applications are expected to pour in over the next three to five months as the Obama administration continues to fill slots with Capitol Hill staffers — opening their old positions for lobbyists looking to shift into government work.
To be sure, the so-called cleansing is not the only consideration for lobbyists jumping to the Hill; many Democrats want to serve in their party’s expanded majorities.
“Unless they worked on the Hill before ’94, [Democrats have] never known life in the majority,” said Blair Bennett, a partner at top recruiting firm Korn Ferry International. And those who have arrived since 2000, she added, have “never known life with a Democratic president.”
Not to mention, Democratic lobbyist Andy Rosenberg said, “Democrats love government. We believe in government and we enjoy working for government. And so the temptation is always there and the pull is even stronger at a time of such historical significance.”
Still, many lobbyists who weren’t on board with Obama early share a different audacious hope — that scoring a Hill job will increase their odds of landing one in the White House down the rroad.
But one Democratic lobbyist said, “If you’re that damn desperate to get cleansed to get into the Obama administration, you’re probably a true believer who has already done enough quietly to get themselves considered anyway.”
White House officials would not comment on the reverse revolving door. Instead, they pointed to last week’s executive order that prevents former administration officials from ever lobbying the Obama White House — a prohibition that goes further than any previous presidential ethics rules.
Former President George W. Bush, for example, enacted a year-long lobbying ban for those leaving the administration — a move that makes more sense, according to Dave Wenhold, the president of the American League of Lobbyists and a partner at Miller Wenhold Capitol Strategies.
The administration’s strict rules on lobbying are “good in theory, but they don’t work in reality,” Wenhold said. “Lobbyists are experts in their fields, period. I don’t think [Obama] is doing what he needs to be doing to get the best people in the job. ... You wouldn’t runa business that way.”
“If they can’t lobby for two to six years, is that really a smart business move?” Wenhold said. “I doubt it. I think you’re going to find a lot of people taking a hard look at that.”
But others say the tighter rules are unlikely to discourage lobbyists from angling for White House jobs because they don’t prevent them from returning to Capitol Hill, where most advocacy work occurs.
“You can always go make money. You don’t always get the opportunity to work in the government at a time like this,” said Democratic lobbyist Heather Podesta, the sister-in-law of transition co-chairman John Podesta.
But lobbyists scrambling to find a way into the administration have some reason to hope.
Eric Holder, the incoming attorney general, was a lobbyist with Covington & Burling. Deputy Health and Human Services Secretary-designate Bill Corr lobbied for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids. Ron Klain, Vice President Joe Biden’s chief of staff, worked for O’Melveny & Myers. And that’s not to mention the administration’s special waiver for Deputy Defense Secretary-designate and former Raytheon lobbyist William Lynn.
One lobbyist applying for a Hill job called the Obama era “a great opportunity to make a difference.”
Considering the tighter restrictions, he said, “It’s not so good for me, but I give them credit. The administration has kept their pledge and they’ve stood strong on this.”