Romney and the lobbysists

We are slowly starting to learn bits and pieces about the pre-election transition planning of Governor Mitt Romney. Since the spring, we have known that Mike Leavitt, the former secretary of Health and Human Services and Governor of Utah, was chosen to lead transition planning, dubbed the “Readiness Project”. And it was reported at the end of last week by the Associated Press that Romney’s transition team is mulling whether to lift the ban on federal lobbyists that President Obama ordered at the start of his administration. Since we know so little about Romney’s transition planning, this kernel of information about what Romney’s brain trust is considering should be scrutinized.

As you may recall, the President pledged during the 2008 campaign to take on the lobbyists and that lobbyists would not run his White House. His opponent, Senator McCain, held similar contempt toward lobbyists, but not all in the Obama camp welcomed such a strident stance. The issue was so problematic for certain members of the Obama campaign, so reported Richard Wolfe, that John Podesta, who was running the pre-election transition efforts, feared it would cost them valuable talent in the administration. Many of those inline for jobs in the Obama Administration were also affiliated with Podesta’s think tank, the Center for American Progress, and some worked at the water’s edge of federal lobbying.

Two things ultimately occurred that relieved the issue for the president. First, some officials had de-listed themselves as registered lobbyists early enough in advance of the Election to qualify for appointments. Others, such as Senator Tom Daschle, had worked for lobbying firms, but technically not as registered lobbyists, meaning they could sneak through the technical language of the new Executive Order (#13490). Four years later, dozens of officials have successfully served the President because their lobbying experiences sailed under the lobbying rule.

Second, if you could not get around the lobbyist ban, several exemptions were quickly granted. The first set of exemptions was given immediately upon the President taking office to William Lynn, Cecilia Munoz, and Jocelyn Frye; and others followed later. Exemptions were generally given because of special “expertise” of the applicant and the “public interest” served by granting the waiver.

Romney’s inner circle is just as well-staffed with those from the world of lobbying. The rumor mill has it that Chuck Conner (National Council of Farmer Cooperatives), Jack Gerard (American Petroleum Institute), Marion Blakey (Aerospace Industries Association), and others are under consideration for positions in a Romney cabinet, and many are or have been deeply involved in federal lobbying.

To be sure, lobbying, whether of the regulated or unregulated variety, brings the type of federal expertise a new administration seeks. Lobbyists may have the best interests of their client in mind, but often that client – be it a trade association, corporation, or citizen group – has interests that are widely shared by the public. More to the point, most former lobbyists serve as ethical public officials who can distinguish between their former and current employers. And some of our country’s most corrupt public officials never worked as lobbyists. The important issue is not the resume, but evaluating the integrity of the appointee and consistent enforcement of the rules. Ironically, lobbyists themselves have recently put endorsed many of these very proposals.

As we reach the final weeks of the campaign, Governor Romney should clarify what his views are on the role of lobbyists in government. He should be open about what directions he is giving his transition team on how to vet potential candidates for his administration, both those with experiences in lobbying and those without. Finally, he should make public and transparent the ethical standard he will hold his advisors to if elected. If the President wants to be re-elected, he should again clarify again the exact same things.

Brown is an assistant professor of Political Science at Seton Hall University and the author of the book, Lobbying the New President: Interests in Transition, published by Routledge in May of 2012. He can be followed on Twitter @heathbrown.

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