Skip to content

Editorial: Purity Test

On a wide swath of policy, governing is proving more difficult than campaigning was for President Barack Obama — and nowhere more than in picking personnel. We said from the outset that his virtual jihad against the lobbying industry was a mistake — a “bum rap,” to be exact — and now the complexities are becoming evident.

“I am in this race to tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over,” he famously declared. “They have not funded my campaign, they will not get jobs in my White House and they will not drown out the voices of the American people when I am president.”

The actual ethics rules set forth at the outset of the administration narrowed the definition of “lobbyist” to those registered under the Lobbying Disclosure Act and also allowed for waivers to be issued by the Office of Management and Budget.

But Obama has been held to account for the super-pure spirit of his declarations as well as the fine print. Example A: former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who was nominated to be Health and Human Services secretary and White House health “czar.”

Daschle’s nomination tanked, of course, because he failed to pay $140,000 in income taxes that he owed for use of a car and driver, but the flap elevated a huge contradiction in Obama’s sacred rules.

Daschle earned $5 million in two years not as a shoe-leather, ear-to-the-phone registered lobbyist, but as a “strategic adviser,” “counselor” and rainmaker at the lobbying law firm Alston & Bird. His appointment was widely slammed as hypocrisy on Obama’s part, and it was.

Then, Obama got grief for waivers granted for Goldman Sachs lobbyist Mark Patterson to be chief of staff to the secretary of the Treasury and, especially, for Raytheon lobbyist William Lynn to be deputy secretary of Defense.

There was less of a flap over the selection of nonprofit lobbyist William Corr, previously of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids, to be deputy secretary of HHS. But, according to Foreign Policy magazine, the fact that Tom Malinowski lobbied for Human Rights Watch has blocked him from a top State Department job.

Our principal objection to Obama’s stated bias against lobbyists is that it deprives the government of expert talent and discriminates against a class of people willing to take a steep pay cut to perform public service.

Some top lobbyists, how many is not clear, are so determined to get jobs in the administration that they are willing to “cleanse” themselves by going to work as Congressional staffers for two years before becoming eligible for executive branch appointments.

It’s a waste of time and talent. And, because Obama has been forced to make exceptions to his overly narrow rules, he’s not even getting credit for purity. As the realities of governing sink in, we hope the administration will see the wisdom of flexibility and pragmatism.

Lobbyists shouldn’t be banned from service. Like everyone else, they should be vetted and, when necessary, recuse themselves when there are conflicts.

Recent Stories

Lawmakers press to avoid funding pitfall for public defenders

Supreme Court sounds skeptical of cross-state air pollution rule

Another year, another disaster aid gap as funding deadline nears

Tall order for lawmakers to finish spending bills next week

Capitol Ink | It’s gotta be the shoes

Truck rule is first test drive of federal autonomous vehicle oversight