Thursday, November 13, 2008

Obama acts to drive the lobbyists out of Washington

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By Leonard Doyle

Strict new rules on the backroom deal-makers; President-elect hopes to succeed where others failed

The leader of Barack Obama's transition team has delivered some bad news to the hordes of lobbyists plying their trade in the fancy restaurants and faceless offices along Pennsylvania Avenue: they are not welcome.

John Podesta, the transition chief, has revealed a set of draconian new regulations aimed at curbing the excessive influence of lobbyists, as Mr Obama promised throughout his election campaign. They are to be denied their normal role of greasing the wheels of the new administration's costly transition to power by paying for office space and staff between now and the inauguration on 20 January.

Mr Podesta unveiled what he said was "the strictest, the most far-reaching ethics rules of any transition team in history," and declared "that the undue influence of Washington lobbyists and the revolving door of Washington ceases to exist."

The White House and the Capitol are the two most impressive buildings in Washington but power is really along Pennsylvania Avenue and K Street, where the top-tier lobbyists arrange access to decision-makers and cut backroom deals for special interest groups.

Now, in the dying days of the Bush administration, an unprecedented frenzy is under way as Washington's legal and lobbying establishment tries to get its hands on some of the $700bn (£470bn) financial rescue package for clients before a deadline of tomorrow.

One of the top firms is Alston & Bird, which boasts it has the former Republican presidential contender and senator, Bob Dole, on its books. But Democrats are no slouches at lobbying either. The national co-chair of Mr Obama's election campaign, former Senator Tom Daschle also works for Alston & Bird though not, we are assured, as a registered lobbyist. Instead he provides "high level advisory and strategic advice" to the company.

To cope with the crush of lobbyists at its doors, the Treasury Department hired Jeb Mason, a 32-year old Texan who wears cowboy boots and hat to work. A former White House aide of the political adviser Karl Rove, he is now the point of call for the hired guns of the banking industry, insurance and credit card companies lining up to get some of the taxpayers' billions.

Talking about the dozens of phone calls and emails he gets from lobbyists, he told the New York Times, "this must have been how the Politburo felt".

Mr Obama's transition team is planning to hire about 450 people, who will be divided between Washington and Chicago, at a cost of about $12m. Less than half of that amount will be paid for from the public purse and Mr Obama is planning to fund the rest by asking the more than 3 million people who poured small amounts of money into his campaign to make up the rest. No incoming president before him has had access to such a potential well of money and his team has already sent out emails offering "Victory T-shirts" in return for fresh contributions.

Ever since Ronald Reagan's day, corporations and law firms have picked up the tab for presidential transitions. To avoid even the appearance of abuse, the Obama team is limiting private donations to a maximum of $5,000 and will disclose the names of all donors. "So you'll see our contributions... to the transition prior to the inauguration, yes," Mr Podesta said.

One problem the Obama transition team faces is that some of the brightest Washington brains it might want to hire for the transition and later in government are already registered lobbyists. "I've heard the other complaint, which is we're leaving all these experts on the side... We're leaving all the people who know everything out in the cold," Mr Podesta said. "And so be it."

Mr Podesta, who is himself the head of a think-tank, the Centre for American Progress, says that any lobbyists who are hired will be banned from working in areas for which they have previously lobbied.

And anyone who turns to lobbying after gaining insights and contacts working on the transition for the next 69 days, will be barred for 12 months from lobbying the new administration on a subject area they worked on.

The restrictions are viewed as pious hopes by many in Washington. Former president Bill Clinton tried to restrict lobbyists and failed. President Bush did little to stop their growth and they are now a multibillion-dollar business of influence. Even if Mr Obama succeeds in limiting their access to his administration, Congressmen and women are particularly soft targets. For many politicians, getting elected and serving a term or two is merely a rite of passage on the road to a lucrative Pennsylvania Avenue career.

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