Lobbyists could make a comeback after Obama

Greg Nash

The future of President Obama’s anti-lobbyist policies is in doubt.

None of the candidates running for the White House has vowed to keep the restrictions in place, and Democrats have already abandoned Obama’s ban on lobbyist contributions to the party committee and nominating convention.

Obama came into office vowing to “change how Washington works” by curbing the influence of lobbyists and special interest groups.

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The foundation of that effort is an executive order Obama signed on his first full day in office.

Those policies, contained in an ethics pledge that is still required for every political appointee, include:

• A requirement that they promise not to work on anything that substantially impacts a former employer or client for two years. The rule applies regardless of whether or not the person was a registered lobbyist.

•  A requirement that appointees who had been registered lobbyists in the previous two years promise not to participate in a specific matter or issue area on which they had lobbied. They also must agree not to accept employment from any agency they had lobbied in the last two years.

•  A conflict-of-interest standard that bars noncareer appointees from leaving the government and lobbying the highest-ranking administration officials. That provision also stipulates that former “senior” officials who want to lobby must wait two years to advocate before their previous federal employer.

Other policies the White House put in place include a ban on registered lobbyists serving on agency boards, known as Industry Trade Advisory Committees, and the re-opening of White House visitors logs to the public.

The measures have been widely panned by K Street over the past seven years. Lobbyists say the attempt to curb Washington’s “revolving door” has succeeded only in keeping qualified people out of important jobs and impeding the flow of information to the administration.

“The technical side of lobbying is people who know how to get things done. It’s not all based on access,” said one Democratic lobbyist. “The president couldn’t keep his hand out of the cookie jar, so he banned all cookie jars.”

“But it’s kind of a joke. It didn’t really change anything in Washington,” he added.

Obama officials have countered such criticism by saying that the policies represent the most stringent ethics rules of any administration in history.

While the president’s policies have been tougher than what came before, the restrictions have hardly been foolproof.

For one, the order only covers political appointees, providing a loophole for most federal employees.

Additionally, a person must register as a lobbyist if he or she spends 20 percent or more of their time advocating before government officials, a requirement that some say has some wiggle room.

In Obama’s first term, reports surfaced that lobbyists were altering their activities to stay under the threshold required for registering. Subsequently, the number of registered lobbyists began to drop.

While other factors — including the economic downturn and congressional gridlock — likely also contributed to a decline, critics say Obama’s policies drove more of the influence industry underground.

“I think that the spirit of the executive order is good, and the idea behind it was certainly sound. The problems are unintended consequences that the executive order had and a reality of the way Washington works,” said Joshua Ian Rosenstein, a partner at Sandler Reiff Lamb Rosenstein & Birkenstock who handles lobbying compliance issues.

“An administration can try as hard as it wants, but as long as a statute itself is flawed,” Rosenstein said, “everything the administration does to fix it is just patchwork.”

The first major blow to Obama’s policies came in 2014, when the administration reversed course on blocking registered lobbyists from serving on executive branch advisory boards. The decision came after a group of lobbyists sued, saying the policy violated their First Amendment rights.

Additionally, reports show the Obama administration has hired anywhere from 70 to more than 100 former lobbyists and advocates.

“It is still a much smaller number than it has been in any administration in recent times,” said Andy Rosenberg, a partner at Thorn Run Partners. “I don’t believe it’s been to their benefit. If you have been involved in policymaking for any considerable amount of time, it’s likely that you will have lobbied at some point.”

At least four lobbyists-turned-officials had to be granted waivers to serve in the administration because they had lobbied in the previous two years. Even more people have left the administration for K Street in one capacity or another.

“To tell the truth, originally, a year or two ago, I believed that whoever was going to win the White House would revoke the executive order — Democrat or Republican,” said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist at Public Citizen.

None of the Democratic or Republican candidates for the White House answered questions from The Hill about Obama’s lobbyist policies and whether they would strike down or alter the executive order. Only one campaign responded at all.

A spokesman for Republican Sen. Marco RubioMarco RubioThe Trail 2016: Warren takes VP batting practice Abortion ruling roils race for the White House, Senate US, Mexico have mutual ambassadors for first time in over a year MORE (Fla.) said that the camp had not “made any announcements about this yet.”

Holman said he has been reaching out to presidential hopefuls in both parties to make the case for stronger conflict-of-interest rules in the next administration.

On Monday, he sent all the candidates a pledge asking them to agree to two promises. The first is to not appoint anyone who receives a “golden parachute” from a former employer, a bonus that some private-sector firms give to those who go to work in government. The second is to require that appointees not take any official action that directly or substantially affects clients they have had in the last two years.

His effort mirrors a similar, more targeted movement playing out on Capitol Hill, where watchdogs are pushing the Financial Services Conflict of Interest Act, a bill that would codify and strengthen some of Obama’s provisions in law as they relate to financial services agencies.

Although that bill has not gained much traction, it includes Sen. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth WarrenOvernight Finance: McConnell tees up Puerto Rico vote | Britain's credit rating slashed | Clinton vows to appoint trade prosecutor The Trail 2016: Warren takes VP batting practice Five things we learned from first Warren-Clinton appearance MORE (D-Mass.) as a co-sponsor.

The Democratic presidential candidates, former Secretary of State Hillary ClintonHillary Rodham ClintonRepublicans to release Benghazi report Tuesday Sanders's Nevada director floated two-sided coins for tiebreaks: report Benghazi Blues MORE and Sen. Bernie SandersBernie SandersSanders's Nevada director floated two-sided coins for tiebreaks: report Overnight Finance: McConnell tees up Puerto Rico vote | Britain's credit rating slashed | Clinton vows to appoint trade prosecutor The Trail 2016: Warren takes VP batting practice MORE (I-Vt.), have both come out in support of the legislation. Other observers, including Tim LaPira, an associate professor at James Madison University, say the political climate is not yet right for stricter reforms.

“What would it take to actually solve this problem regardless of who is in the White House?” asked LaPira, who is writing a book about the revolving door and lobbying.

“It would take a scandal to put both parties in Congress and whoever is in the White House under the gun in how we evaluate how people influence the government,” he said.