Everything you need to know about Trump's lobbying rules

Everything you need to know about Trump's lobbying rules
© Getty

President-elect Donald TrumpDonald John TrumpDems win from coast to coast Falwell after Gillespie loss: 'DC should annex' Northern Virginia Dems see gains in Virginia's House of Delegates MORE this week announced new restrictions on lobbyists under his administration, part of his pledge to “drain the swamp” in Washington. 

The new rules are part of a five-point ethics plan that Trump proposed a candidate. 

Here’s everything you need to know about the new rules and how they might work.

The basics 

Trump’s transition team has so far released two main policies on lobbying. 

One of the rules will ban anyone given a political appointment in the Trump administration from registering as a lobbyist for the first five years after leaving the government.

The second policy will bar Trump’s political appointees from ever lobbying for a foreign government. More policies could be coming.

The rules, and particularly the lifetime ban on foreign lobbying, could be challenged in court. Although the lobbying profession is unpopular, the industry is protected by the Constitution under the First Amendment right to petition the government.

When President Obama issued his ethics reforms on his first day in the White House, one provision that banned lobbyists from advisory boards at federal agencies was ultimately challenged in court. And the lobbyists won. 

Going beyond Obama

Trump appears poised to expand upon the ethics rules that Obama put in place after winning the White House in 2008.

ADVERTISEMENT
The executive order signed by Obama in his first day in office banned former administration officials from contacting the agency that employed them for two years after they leave government. It also established a conflict-of-interest standard that bars them from lobbying the most senior government officials for the remainder of the administration. Lobbying Capitol Hill, however, is permitted.

It is unclear whether the Trump administration will adopt other ethics policies established by Obama, including one that restricts government officials from receiving gifts from lobbyists and another that discourages meetings between staff and lobbyists at the White House. 

In general, Obama also bars officials from working on issues they lobbied on before joining the administration, if they had been a registered lobbyist working on those issues in the two years before their hire.  

Trump’s team has not said whether that policy will stay, but Republican National Committee chief strategist Sean Spicer told reporters on Thursday that the ban “looks forward,” rather than “looking back.” 

Looking for legislation 

Trump can’t achieve all of his ethics proposals alone. 

He has proposed, for example, that the five-year “cooling off” period for lobbying also apply to members of Congress and their staff.

Right now, former members of the House must wait one year before lobbying and former senators must wait two years. But only very senior congressional staffers are subject to a “cooling off” period after leaving government.

Trump would also like to expand the five-year ban to “all executive branch officials,” meaning it would include workers within agencies who are civil servants, not just political appointees.

Those policies changes and others like them would require action from Congress — and that could be an uphill climb.

Lawmakers in general are skeptical of lobbying and ethics reforms. Even in the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal — a lobbyist who was jailed for four years after a corruption investigation — Capitol Hill was hesitant to pass major ethics reforms. 

In 2007, Congress did strengthen disclosure requirements by requiring lobbyists to report their activities more frequently. The also voted to increase penalties for violating the law, among other changes.

But little has happened since then, with lawmakers reluctant to restrict their own opportunities for employment after leaving Congress.

The fallout

Trump’s ethics rules could drive the lobbying industry further underground.

On the federal level, a lobbyist is a person who spends 20 percent or more of their time during a three-month period trying to influence the government on behalf of a client, including making more than one contact with an elected official, their staff or very senior administration officials.

If that rule sounds simple to evade, it is. Advocates often call themselves a “consultant,” a “government relations” or “public affairs” professional, or a “strategic adviser,” while staying below the 20 percent threshold requiring registration. 

The trend began under Obama, with the number of registered lobbyists dropping from 14,824 in 2008 to 11,504 in 2015. The numbers could drop further during the next administration, according to the Center fore Responsive Politics.

Trump, like Obama, could find that his ethics rules make it harder to fill positions in the administration.

Despite the prestige of working in the administration, many lobbyists might not be willing to work for Trump if it means largely putting their careers on hold for five years.