When Barack Obama was first running for president he pledged to reduce the influence of corporate lobbyists on government. “I am in this race to tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over,” the future president famously declared in 2007. But according to a review completed by POLITICO, the White House has hired around 70 former lobbyists since Obama took office.
The Obama Administration has indeed installed new rules designed to curb the influence of lobbyists on the White House. In a series of executive orders Obama has barred employees in the executive branch from accepting gifts from lobbyists, banned former lobbyists from working on issues related to industries they used to lobby for, and forbidden White House staff from lobbying the White House after moving to the private sector.
But these barriers haven’t been enough to completely halt the revolving door career paths that permeate practically every area of political work here in Washington. Some examples include: Broderick Johnson, one of Obama’s top aides who previously lobbied for companies like Microsoft, Comcast and FedEx; Sean Kennedy, the in-house lobbyist for AT&T who went on to join the White House Office of Legislative Affairs; Alan Hoffman, a lobbyist from Timmons &Co. who was hired as Vice President joe Biden’s Chief of Staff; Mara Rudman, who served on the National Security Council after leaving her own lobbying firm Quorum Strategies; Bradley Gillen, a lobbyist for DISH Network who took a job at the FCC; and Microsoft lobbyist Marc Berejka who got a gig at the Commerce Department.
Five of the six individuals listed above have since left the Obama Administration to return to the private sector, many in a position that includes lobbying.
The fact that the revolving door is alive and well shouldn’t shock anyone who has lived in Washington for more than a year. Lobbyists too often get a bad rap among voters, which means making political promises to end lobbying is a goldmine for first time politicians running for office. But these lobbyists also happen to best some of the best and brightest political minds in the Beltway, with deep knowledge of the issues, the players and the game – making them an invaluable resource for an administration to leverage.
This isn’t to say there aren’t still ethical issues surrounding the revolving door. A Google lobbyist for example, who leaves to take a job at the White House probably has plans to return to the private sector someday. He could even return to Google, probably to get a better pay check and job title. The individual therefore would have a vested interest in maintaining his relationship with Google while fulfilling his public duties, thus blurring the ethical lines due to personal self interest.
While reform can, and probably is needed to change the revolving door, it’s going to take more than a naive pledge from a green politician. Too bad Obama didn’t realize that until after he made a promise he couldn’t keep.