In most Democratic administrations, it would be a no-brainer to hire an environmental specialist to work for the Environmental Protection Agency.
But at least one green advocate in Washington has been shut out.
This person’s problem, as well as those of many other Democrats in the capital: They sport the Scarlet L, “Lobbyist.”
Having campaigned on a promise that lobbyists won’t run his White House, President Barack Obama is discovering that what may make for a good sound bite on the campaign trail can complicate governing.
As he strives to build an administration beyond his top Cabinet officers, Obama is finding that he has limited his pool of potential appointees because of a ban on individuals from agencies that they have lobbied within the past two years.
Some of the very people who would best serve in politically sensitive posts – interest group veterans, former campaign operatives or ex-Hill staffers – earn a living through lobbying.
The policy has spurred frustration among some Democratic lobbyists, especially those who got behind Obama early in his hard-fought primary. They believe the president is depriving himself of an entire group of capable aides – at a time when Obama already is having trouble staffing up his Treasury Department and other key agencies.
For professional reasons – they don’t want to harm their relationship with those running the government or damage their prospects should the rules be eased in the future – few of the lobbyists will talk on the record. But the unease among top Democratic talent now on the outside looking in is unmistakable, especially after the high-profile exceptions Obama made early on.
“I have a lot of friends in the administration and I don’t want to appear bitter,” said one lobbyist who got behind Obama early and had his eye on a White House job. “But they put themselves in the box when they put somebody like [Deputy Defense Secretary] Bill Lynn in and now they look like hypocrites.”
Another Democratic lobbyist who had hoped for a legislative affairs post lamented that, “There are a lot of people who would like to go in and are not being let in.”
“Hopefully it won’t last forever,” he said.
Don’t bet on it, say Obama officials.
“We have no plans to let up,” said Obama spokeswoman Jen Psaki, who said Obama is merely acting on his campaign pledge to reduce the influence of lobbyists and special interests in Washington. She also said Obama has moved faster than other recent administrations to fill political posts.
Yet Obama’s anti-lobbyist rule has hardly been airtight. At least a dozen former lobbyists have found work in his administration.
And some high-profile Democrats who aren’t interested in getting a job from Obama are happy to speak out about what they see as a policy that, while well-intentioned, ought to be narrowed.
“I think it’s a stupid rule,” said Steve Elmendorf, a well-connected Democratic lobbyist and former senior aide to Rep. Dick Gephardt. “If the goal is to get rid of people who have a potential conflict, focus more on that than the definition of a lobbyist.”
Elmendorf cited the hypothetical example of a PHRMA executive who could lobby but a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical trade group who would be barred.
One top Democratic lobbyist wondered just what the Obama administration would do in a year or two when their ranks become thinned from burn-out and they’re still wedded to this policy.
“I’d surmise they’ll go to the Hill,” said this lobbyist.
Some in Washington are already preparing for that eventuality, according to several Democrats.
They call it “getting clean.” Or, as Democratic campaign lawyer Ken Gross put it, “Entering purgatory before the pearly gates of heaven.”
The idea: Leae K Street for a senior post on Capitol Hill and work there for the requisite two years, at which point they can enter the administration sanitized from their lobbying taint.
One Democratic lobbyist pointed to Jeff Connaughton as one person widely thought to be using a congressional job as means of disinfectant.
Connaughton, a former Senate Judiciary Committee aide, left a top lobbying job at Quinn Gillespie to become Chief of Staff to Ted Kaufman (D-Del.), who was appointed to fill now Vice President Joe Biden’s Senate seat and won’t run again in 2010.
Connaughton didn’t respond to an email but said earlier this year that his move “has everything to do with my relationship with Ted Kaufman,” himself a former Biden Chief of Staff.
Since former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle’s appointment as Health and Human Services Secretary was scuttled, numerous Democrats say the Obama administration has clamped down, not only intensifying the vetting process but lowering their threshold for any potential conflicts – steps that have swept up even more lobbyists.
Mark Gitenstein, for example, was in line to head the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Policy, but because he had lobbied for the Chamber of Commerce, the plug was pulled.
Gitenstein didn’t even need a waiver in the fashion of Lynn, a former Raytheon lobbyist, because he was not going to work for an agency he had directly lobbied.
Still, after Public Citizen mounted a campaign against Gitenstein because of his Chamber work, the former Chief Counsel of the Senate Judiciary Committee under then-Sen. Joseph Biden was shunted aside.
Gitenstein, like his band of would-be aides, declined to comment.
Still, Elmendorf noted, the hard-line hasn’t come as a surprise.
“They made it pretty clear from the beginning what the standards were,” he said.
Hilary Rosen, a former top recording industry lobbyist and current PR executive, said the administration’s approach is simply too broad.
“They might have made a distinction between non-profit causes and business, but they didn’t and now it’s hard to go back and rewrite,” said Rosen. She cited the example of a friend in line for a post who is being held up because she briefly lobbied for a foster-care advocacy group.
But, Rosen added, “the president campaigned on this and he’s being consistent.”
Speaking without attribution, other longtime Democrats are less forgiving.
One Democrat cited the case of Mark Magana, a former legislative affairs aide in the Clinton White House.
“Here’s this Clinton guy out there organizing Hispanics for Obama and he gets wiped out because he’s a lobbyist,” the Democrat complained.
Magana wouldn’t comment.
A prominent lobbyist complained about the strict rules and said some in the administration were taking campaign talking points too seriously.
This town is filled with crackerjack tax attorneys but you can go bowling in the Treasury hallway and not hit anybody,” added this person. “Meanwhile our economy is disintegrating.”
Another lobbyist drew a parallel between President Clinton’s campaign pledge to cut the White House staff by 25 percent and Obama’s anti-lobbyists promise.
“Obama will find out, like Clinton, that he could use those people,” said this lobbyist.
Many of those people, however, have apparently gotten the message that they aren’t wanted.
“Ninety-five percent of us have at this point given up,” said one lobbyist left on the sidelines. “Registered lobbyists need not apply.”