Left ramps up pressure on Biden for lobbying ethics pledge
President-elect Joe Biden is poised to start his presidency amid simmering tensions with progressives who want his administration to work as little as possible with K Street.
Progressives applauded Biden during the campaign for refusing to take donations from lobbyists, but his administration is unlikely to refuse working with lobbyists if they can help advance key policy goals.
To the frustration of many on the left, Biden has already tapped lobbyists like Steve Ricchetti and Tom Vilsack for top posts in his administration.
Now, progressive lawmakers and groups are pushing for an ethics pledge similar to the executive order from former President Obama that put restrictions on former lobbyists working in the White House.
Sens. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), Ed Markey (D-Mass.) and Jeff Merkley (D-Ore.) wrote to Biden this week seeking an ethics pledge that includes a total ban on lobbyists employed by corporations from serving in the administration and requiring more extensive public reporting of all lobbying activity directed toward the White House.
“We strongly support your commitment to demonstrate with your actions – not just your words – that public servants in the Biden-Harris administration will serve all Americans, not just themselves or narrow special interests,” the lawmakers wrote.
Biden has not spelled out the specifics of a forthcoming pledge but has said it will improve on the Obama administration pledge and “address not only the improper influence of lobbyists, but also any improper or inappropriate influence from personal, financial, and other interests,” according to his website.
Doug Pinkham, president of the Public Affairs Council, warned against imposing blanket bans from Day One to appease one faction of the party.
“If you start from the beginning and make rules for yourself that can hamper you — to say, ‘I’m not going to talk to this group or that group, I’m not going to let people like this be involved in the conversation’ — it might score you a few points with the most strident opponents of lobbying or corporate involvement in politics, but at the end of the day, you’re going to be measured by your success,” Pinkham said.
Since before the election, progressive groups have urged Biden to not hire any lobbyists. In October, lawmakers like Democratic Reps. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (N.Y.) and Katie Porter (Calif.) called on Senate leadership to oppose the confirmation of any nominee to an executive branch position who is a lobbyist or former lobbyist who had a corporate client.
Ricchetti, who will be counsel to Biden, previously co-owned a lobbying firm with his brother. Vilsack, who is Biden’s pick for Agriculture secretary, is president of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, a major industry lobbying group, and previously worked as a registered lobbyist for the law firm Dorsey & Whitney.
But instead of blasting Biden for those picks, many progressives have held their fire and instead focused on their calls for a strong policy going forward.
Issue One, which pushes for campaign finance reform, said it wants to see firm and transparent lobbying rules from the Biden administration.
“Our take at Issue One is while we don’t want the administration to be full of lobbyists, we want strict rules preventing the revolving door,” said Danielle Caputo, legislative and programs counsel. “But we also understand that corporations make up our economy and they should have a seat at the table.”
“Having a purity test, just generally speaking, is not helpful,” Caputo said. She said it’s acceptable for Biden to occasionally make an exception and pick former lobbyists for certain positions “so as long as he doesn’t abuse the exceptions.”
Obama made exceptions for former Raytheon lobbyist William J. Lynn, who served as deputy secretary of Defense, and Cecilia Muñoz, a former lobbyist for the National Council of La Raza who was picked to lead the White House Domestic Policy Council. Dozens of other former lobbyists also joined the administration later in Obama’s presidency.
Pinkham said the executive order by the 44th president imposing restrictions on lobbyists is “one of the mistakes Obama made early on.”
“I understand why he did it because he felt, ‘One of the reasons I was elected was to deal with Washington and its issues. One of [the issues] is we don’t want lobbyists to serve,’ ” he said.
Some progressives grumbled recently when Biden said his National Economic Council would be led by Brian Deese, deputy director of the Office of Management and Budget under Obama and managing director of investment firm BlackRock. Progressive groups have called for blanket bans on Wall Street executives.
They were later ameliorated to some extent by new members of Biden’s economic team announced on Monday: Bharat Ramamurti, a former adviser to Warren; David Kamin, an economic and budget adviser in the Obama White House; and Joelle Gamble, a board member at the progressive Roosevelt Institute.
The three garnered praise from progressive groups such as Justice Democrats and Sunrise Movement, which called the appointments “a major win for progressives.”
Other groups have put forth their own picks who they say have stronger ties to public service than corporate America.
The Progressive Change Institute last month sent Biden 400 personnel recommendations on behalf of 40 progressive organizations in an effort to avoid corporate influence in the White House.
“Biden doesn’t need corporate lobbyists in his administration. We are making it easy for the Biden Transition team to fill the government with diverse, qualified personnel who have a proven commitment to public service,” Progressive Change Institute co-founder Stephanie Taylor said in a statement at the time.
Caputo, of Issue One, argues that a balanced approach would be best for Biden in juggling corporate interests and progressive interests. Meeting with lobbyists isn’t a problem, she said, if Biden also speaks with other groups and individuals who are not focused on corporate interests.
“I think they should still be able to meet with lobbyists. I think decreasing the amount, being clear about the White House visitor log, and who is coming in and who is speaking, and ensuring us that it doesn’t end up being overrun” is important, Caputo said.
Beyond Cabinet and top administration posts, Biden could also name registered lobbyists to serve on federal government commissions and advisory boards, a move that would likely upset progressives.
But Pinkham is among those who say that frustration is worth it if Biden is able to achieve broader goals.
“On a lot of things, Biden is going to take a middle of the road type of approach to say, ‘Before I would put a ban on anything, I want to know darn sure it’s going to help me and not hurt me.’ Obama got more aware of the good aspects of advocacy, not just that it’s all villainous,” Pinkham said.
“I think Biden just has that experience that he’s going to want all the expertise he can get.”