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Obama's Anti-Lobbyist Policy Causing Unintended Harm

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Barack Obama made no secret of his feelings for "Washington lobbyists" during the campaign and vowed that they wouldn't be staffing his White House.

The implementation of that rule, however, has led to a number of consequences that Obama could never have intended. Eliminating lobbyists from consideration drains the pool of progressive talent that the White House needs at a time when agencies and departments are severely understaffed. Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner, for instance, barely has any deputies as the economy continues to spiral out of control.

Lobbyists who for years have fought for workers' rights, environmental protection, human rights, pay-equity for women, consumer protection and other items on the Obama agenda have found the doors to the White House HR department slammed shut. In the past, several progressive lobbyists explained, there was no reason not to register if there was a slim chance that the law might require it. Obama's new policy changes the calculus, leading folks to deregister as federal lobbyists or consider other employment while they wait out the policy's required two-year separation from lobbying.

"There is now a cottage industry of deregistration. Everyone who can deregister is deregistering," said one public-interest advocate. He said that he spends too much of his time lobbying and so can't make the deregistration argument for himself. Instead, he's considering leaving his job to wait out the two years.

Kelly Landis is a spokeswoman for the Alliance for Justice, which advises nonprofit groups on the regulations that govern lobbying. She said there has been a recent "uptick in calls from groups" asking about the rules surrounding registration.

"There are more questions from groups specifically about whether or not they need to register," said Landis. She then looked deeper into the question and reported back that she "spoke to another person who handles these issues and regrettably, she is getting questions about deregistering. Groups and individuals are confused and concerned; it would be unfortunate if the new landscape resulted in less advocacy from nonprofits on important issues."

A spokeswoman for the Secretary of the Senate, where lobbyists register, said that the office's forms and database aren't set up to tabulate deregistrations. The last official numbers, from Sept. 30, 2008, showed 13,926 registered lobbyists on the list. The lobbyist registry was created to make the practice more transparent. The rise of deregistrations undermines that purpose.

Sen. Russell Feingold (D-Wisc.) is about as committed a government reformer as you can find. While he said that "reasonable accommodations" should be made, he backed Obama's policy.

"If the rules are made clear now and kept, people can plan their conduct accordingly in the future," said Feingold.

But that's just the problem, said the liberal lobbyists: It's counterproductive to Obama's long-term agenda to discourage people from entering into the field of progressive advocacy.

"Heaven help us that there's never another anti-worker, anti-poor-people administration, but my gut tells me there will be. And the last thing you want is to not have people on the front lines to defend the things that this administration wants to put into place, if they think they're going to be discriminated against in terms of future employment," said one nonprofit lobbyist who served in the Clinton administration and has applied, unsuccessfully, to Obama's.

"Had these people who are advocates not been doing this over the last eight years, it's clear that, for those of us who agree with their positions, and I think by and large the president does, things would be worse. Not only would the economy be worse, the safety net would be worse," he said. "The Bush administration would have gotten more of their way."

One progressive lobbyist said that a coworker was given an opportunity to move from state-level to federal-level work - something she'd wanted for years - but is now reluctant for fear of getting the scarlet L around her neck.

Several lobbyists said that when the new policy was announced, affecting anyone who'd been a registered lobbyist in the last two years, a horde of their coworkers deregistered.

"Frankly, if I'd have known two years ago that there would be this policy in place, I could have easily not registered," said one labor lobbyist. She deregistered in November so that she'd eventually be clean enough to work in the administration, she said.

There's no crisp line dividing people who must register as lobbyists from people who don't. The rule is that if more than 20 percent of your time is spent lobbying, you must register. But who's counting? And what counts, exactly?

"I know people who have very similar jobs who come down on different sides. Now some of them as a result are eligible for positions in the administration while others are not," said one progressive lobbyist. Several other advocates expressed frustration at the same phenomenon - that the anti-lobbyist policy rewards folks who simply didn't register -- and one, who works on behalf of lower-income people, said she is looking into whether she can legally deregister, but that she's unsure if she will because the rules are murky.

Along with state-level public-interest work, the rule ends up encouraging folks to lobby for corporate America. A corporate lobbyist often only lobbies Congress - and so wouldn't be banned from working for federal agencies - and often lobbies on very narrow pieces of legislation. Public interest advocates, by contrast, lobby much more broadly.

"Ironically this policy creates an incentive for people to go make money rather than become public interest advocates," said one progressive lobbyist, noting that recruiting public advocates has become harder. "Anyone who wants to work for this organization will have to consider whether they're willing to preclude the possibility of government service in the future. The same is true for civil rights groups, for environmental groups, for a whole range of civic groups that do work the Obama administration admires."

Members of the advocacy community, beyond the systemic risk, simply see the rule as unfair. One noted that Obama himself writes in his first memoir about public-interest lobbying that he did as a younger activist. "Would Martin Luther King be allowed to work in this administration?" one asked, noting that King lobbied extensively in 1963 and 1964 for the Civil Rights Act.

"Finally, we can turn the country around and help and that's not an option because we're evil lobbyists," said one labor lobbyist with more than 20 years experience she described as "helping people who are working stay safe and get a good salary. I can't think of a conflict, as a lifetime Democrat, and a lifetime labor lobbyist, that would conflict in any way with the Obama administration."

The progressive lobbyists spoken to for this article would speak only on the condition that their identity not be revealed so that they wouldn't be seen criticizing the administration and, perhaps more importantly, so their bosses wouldn't know they'd been looking for work.

One of the more high-profile casualties of the policy has been Tom Malinowski, whose job peddling the influence of Human Rights Watch reportedly knocked him out of the running for several administration jobs. Foreign Policy magazine's blog highlighted other nonprofit lobbyists with a foreign affairs focus who had been caught up by the rule. Malinowski, who was closely involved with the campaign, confirmed that he was told by the administration that his lobbying made him ineligible.

Fundamentally, lobbying on behalf of the public interest is a good thing, advocates argue, but they also press the case that their specific skills should be in demand by the administration. The case they make: A) progressive lobbyists are not in the business to get rich B) their agenda is exactly the same as the administration's agenda and C) they've been on the frontlines of battles over esoteric issues and have the most recent and detailed understanding of how to move the progressive agenda forward.

"I'm about to send my first kid to college," said one lifelong public advocate getting stonewalled by the White House, "who keeps saying, 'Where's the college fund?' We don't have one, dear. I'm a lobbyist."

At root is a sense of betrayal. "I know a lot of people who are similarly situated who had worked very hard for the campaign on their own personal time -- took off, spent their own money and were very, very supportive," said one White House applicant who lobbies for improved healthcare for low-income women. "It seems very unsophisticated to me to have gone down this road where you make no distinction between the environmental lobbyist and the Exxon lobbyist."

They have an ally in Sen. Barbara Boxer (D-Calif.). "I think if you lobbied for a public interest it's a whole different thing than if you lobbied for a special interest," she said.

"I think it's a mistake," said Andrew Herman, a congressional ethics attorney in Washington, of Obama's sweeping policy. While he sympathized with the lobbyists, he was skeptical that no longer being registered would be enough. "I don't think that'll be enough in this environment."

The anti-lobbying rule itself has the advocacy community confused about whether they're completely ineligible or work for the administration or only barred from certain positions related to their particular area.

One lobbyist said she'd been specifically told by an appointed official that she would not be considered by the department she had applied to because she was a registered lobbyist.

The rule, as written, broadly captures most public interest lobbyists, ordering that no lobbyist can "seek or accept employment with any executive agency that [he or she] lobbied within the 2 years before the date of [the] appointment."

"Part of the frustration is not knowing if being a lobbyist precludes you from being considered or not. There's this thought that they don't want lobbyists, but then there's this thought that they've made some exceptions - some high profile corporate exceptions," said one labor lobbyist.

One progressive lobbyist's description of her experience was typical. "I've had a couple people floating [my resume] around and I just keep hearing, 'They're not going to hire any registered lobbyists,'" she said. "I've e-mailed a couple friends who are inside [the White House] to say, 'Is it really true? No matter what, if you're a federal lobbyist, you're out of the question." I get the first answer, which is 'Hmmm, let me check.' And then I never hear anything back."

The biggest waiver so far has gone to the top lobbyist from the weapons-maker Raytheon Co. William Lynn III was appointed the top deputy spot at the Pentagon, leading progressive lobbyists to think that if he can get one, then surely they can, too.

Most, though, are left with little hope. "They've got to really want to hire you," said one. "If it's just a garden variety person and one person is registered and another is not, I think the choice is clear."

Advocates are getting the sense that there are precious few waivers to be had. "They started making exceptions and now they don't want to make exceptions any more," said one. "Had they led with waivers for people who had clearly been doing good work not for financial gain, instead of leading with waivers for defense industry lobbyists, it would have looked better."

For now, he said, the waiver process is shut down. "The answer at the highest levels is, 'Don't f---ing talk to me about waivers,'" he said.