You know when it's really time for a campaigning president to commit to cleaning up K Street? When Jack Abramoff, the convicted felon and former lobbying heavyweight, starts demanding lobbying reform. No, this isn't a lame "when pigs fly" joke. Abramoff has been making stops around the country, recommending ways that the government can place controls on the problematic revolving door between the lobbying industry and the White House.
"I believe that those who engage in public service, those who work on Capitol Hill, those who are elected to federal office and the administration, should not be able to move from those positions into the influence industry," Abramoff said when I saw him speak at an event hosted by consumer rights advocacy group Public Citizen in early February.
Abramoff's motive for spreading the unfortunate truth about the lobbying industry may be suspect — (he's giving paid speeches in part because he's got to pay the $44 million in restitution he owes for defrauding Native American tribes somehow) — but you've got to give it to him: When it comes to the toxic relationship between money and politics, he knows what he's talking about.
And the list of politicians who have taken jobs as lobbyists is quite long: Just check out Talking Points Memo's comprehensive map of the nearly 200 members of Congress who have entered the lobbying business.
Even Jack Abramoff, the convicted felon and former lobbying heavyweight, is demanding lobbying reform.
Reforming the mechanics of the revolving door needs to become a priority, and both President Obama and presumptive GOP nominee Mitt Romney should make it a campaign promise. It's easy to see why the door exists. Lobbying firms hire government insiders because it gives them invaluable insight, and creates a special relationship with the agency or Congressional committee they are trying to influence. It pays big for private industry to have a foot in the executive branch. On the flip side, it's much harder to get a presidential candidate to commit to fixing the problem.
Congressional staffers and members of an administration, for their part, are tempted by high-paying lobbying or consulting jobs in the private sector. Just ask Abramoff: He has claimed that 90 percent of the people whom he dealt with on Capitol Hill wanted to work for him. He's not just posturing, either; the Sunlight Foundation recently found that since July 2009, at least 377 former House of Representative staffers have left the Hill to become registered lobbyists.
As lucrative as the back and forth may be for the lobbying industry and elected officials, U.S. taxpayers are getting caught in the crossfire. The public is hurt by the conflicts of interest that arise when politics and money mix — and appearances of conflicts can be just as damaging, as they erode public trust.
For example, recently a Food and Drug Administration (FDA) panel narrowly approved a birth control pill that has been linked to a higher risk of blood clots and strokes. The problem? Several of the advisors who voted "yes" had ties to the maker of the drug. Eliminating these members could have changed the panel's decision. Would you have trusted this panel with your safety, or your sister's?
The Obama administration has made some strides in trying to crack down on the revolving door. He issued an executive order on his first day of office banning his staffers from lobbying his administration after leaving it. Obama also prohibited lobbyists who joined his administration from working in their lobbying areas for two years; the two-year ban also barred them from working for the agencies they had previously lobbied for.
Back in 2008, Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, said most people viewed the pledge as an "admirable" step that delivered on a campaign promise. Unfortunately, more than three years later, Krumholz says Obama's pledge "has been undermined to some degree by the exceptions to the rule," because the administration left open a loophole that would allow it to issue waivers if the specific hiring decision was thought to be in the public interest.
There have been more than a few exceptions. Most recently, the Project On Government Oversight (POGO) criticized the Obama administration for hiring Steve Ricchetti to be a senior advisor — even though the Obama campaign had previously attacked him for being a federal lobbyist when he was raising money for Hillary Clinton back in 2008. POGO's Communications Director Joe Newman wrote: "Listening to the administration spin the hire is pretty funny. Ricchetti hasn't personally lobbied since 2008. What was he doing instead? He was running his, um, lobbying(!) firm."
Ricchetti's hiring wasn't the first time Obama dodged the executive order. Mark Patterson, a lobbyist for Goldman Sachs, was hired to serve as the Treasury Department chief of staff without a waiver — even though it certainly appears he's working on issues for which he lobbied. In January 2009, Obama issued a waiver for William J. Lynn III to serve as the Deputy Secretary of Defense — despite the fact that Lynn (who left the Department of Defense earlier this year) is a former lobbyist for Raytheon Company, which received over $10 billion in contracts from the military in fiscal year 2008. This certainly appears to serve the interests of the defense contractor more than the public's.
Ultimately, Obama's executive order — when it's followed — is a step in the right direction. But there's still a lot of work to be done. The rules should be adjusted to make sure that lobbyist roles are properly defined; at present, the definition is so narrow, it excludes a good portion of the industry. The order should also provide exceptions for the "good" lobbyists — essentially, registered lobbyists who work for nonprofits, which often have unique expertise. Once the pledge is perfected, it should be made into law, which would ensure "special interest" lobbyists are not negatively impacting the public interest in the years to come. There should also be more oversight of the waivers that are issued.
As Krumholz put it, "anytime a public official makes a strong rule and then makes exceptions to that rule, they run the risk of undermining their credibility."
Lastly, every government agency should publish a "revolving door database" online, which would provide information to the public on the employees who seek to lobby after leaving an agency, and possibly the lobbying track records of new hires. This would go far to provide transparency to the oft-cloaked hiring process. These are the kinds of reforms that would make Abramoff — and the American public — proud.