Nearly a year after President Obama launched his administration with sweeping new ethics and transparency rules, the war over lobbyists and their role in Washington is just beginning.
On the one hand, the administration has set a new standard for government openness and sparked a lively debate over just how aggressively lobbyists can and should be regulated.
On the other, Obama's new rules have angered many lobbyists and public interest advocates alike, and failed to address the root cause of ethics abuses -- namely, the campaign finance system that pumps special interest money into elections.
Obama's new ethics regime has also exposed flaws in the rules that define who is and is not a lobbyist. Too often, administration restrictions shut out registered lobbyists who disclose their activities but leave the door open to corporate executives and advocates who don't meet the technical definition of lobbyist.
Most troubling, the new rules may have fueled so-called deregistrations among lobbyists who now prefer to fly under the radar. This obviously hurts transparency rather than advancing it. At the same time, the debates over health care, energy and financial services have boosted business on K Street.
Many reform advocates and watchdog organizations have given the administration high marks. The president's "groundbreaking government integrity reforms" show that he "is serious about changing the rules of the game in Washington," declared five leading pro-reform advocacy groups in April, in a statement marking the administration's first 100 days.
A Dec. 1 Congressional Research Service report, moreover, concludes that the administration's restrictions "have already changed the relationship between lobbyists and covered executive branch officials."
Still, at every step of the way, White House ethics, lobbying and transparency directives have received mixed reviews. The controversies began Jan. 21, on Obama's first day in office, when he signed a series of executive orders and memoranda aimed at tightening ethics and hiring rules, and improving government disclosure.
The new rules ban presidential appointees from accepting gifts from lobbyists and impose the first-ever "reverse revolving door" restrictions on administration hires. The rules ban anyone who lobbied a particular agency during the preceding two years from being appointed to that agency. Presidential appointees are also banned from coming back to lobby the agencies where they worked for the duration of the administration.
Reform advocates hailed the new restrictions as unprecedented. But a half-dozen or so waivers granted to high-profile lobbyists quickly dominated news coverage. An uproar over former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle's unpaid taxes and lucrative consulting work forced the South Dakota Democrat to step aside as a candidate to head the Department of Health and Human Services. (Daschle was not a lobbyist, but had worked as a health industry adviser.)
Former lobbyist William Lynn fared better, weathering a storm over his appointment as deputy secretary of Defense. But some wondered why a former Raytheon lobbyist was being handed a top DoD post, and accused the Obama administration of selectively enforcing the new hiring rules.
Next came disputes over administration restrictions on talks between government officials and lobbyists seeking bailout and stimulus funding. In late January, Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner announced curbs on oral communications from lobbyists seeking Emergency Economic Stabilization Act funds. In March, the White House unveiled similar limits on lobbyists seeking funds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009.
The Recovery Act limits, in particular, riled activists on both the right and left. The American Civil Liberties Union and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, among others, joined the American League of Lobbyists in opposing the limits on recovery money talks.
The administration's initial plan was to ban executive branch officials from talking directly with lobbyists about specific Recovery Act grants and to require that written communications be publicly posted. Critics said the curbs were unconstitutional and unfairly singled out lobbyists while allowing all others -- including industry CEOs -- to keep talking directly with agency officials.
The White House defused the controversy in late May, following a review period and meetings with disgruntled lobbyists, by expanding the ban to cover everyone "exerting influence" on the process -- not just lobbyists -- and by narrowing the window of time when the ban would apply.
But tensions flared again when the administration announced in September that it would ask agencies to ban lobbyists from serving on government advisory boards. Angry letters ensued, not just from the ALL but from the chairs of the 16 Industry Trade Advisory Committees, known as ITACs. The move would depopulate the committees, the ITAC chairs warned, and rob trade negotiations of invaluable expertise.
Administration officials counter that the policy will actually strengthen the ITACs and other government advisory boards by enlarging them and diversifying their membership. Lobbyists remain dissatisfied, but the administration isn't budging.
It's just one of many ongoing disputes between lobbyists and the White House. And in 2010, there will be plenty more to come. Reform advocates are gearing up to push yet again for public financing, not just of presidential campaigns but congressional races as well. There's also talk of strengthening the Lobbying Disclosure Act to broaden the definition of "lobbyist" and require more up-to-the-minute reporting. All this ensures that in the new year, the president's uneasy tug-of-war with K Street will only intensify.