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Obama softens ban on hiring lobbyists

By Michael Kranish
Globe Staff / November 12, 2008
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WASHINGTON - President-elect Barack Obama, who vowed during his campaign that lobbyists "won't find a job in my White House," said through a spokesman yesterday that he would allow lobbyists on his transition team as long as they work on issues unrelated to their earlier jobs.

Obama's transition chief laid out ethics rules - which also bar transition staff from lobbying the administration for one year if they become lobbyists later - and portrayed them as the strictest ever for a transfer of presidential power.

But independent analysts said yesterday that the move is less than the wholesale removal of lobbyists that he suggested during the campaign - and shows how difficult it will be to lessen the pervasive influence of more than 40,000 registered lobbyists.

"That is a step back and there is no other way of seeing it," said Craig Holman, who lobbies on governmental affairs for the watchdog group Public Citizen. Nonetheless, he said, Obama is still making "a very concrete effort to avoid what I consider a potentially corrupting situation."

Obama, who promised to change how business gets done in Washington, railed against lobbyists in the upper ranks of rival John McCain's campaign.

The Democrat also refused to take money from federal lobbyists, and lobbyists will be banned from donating to the transition, which is expected to involve 450 employees and cost about $12 million, $5.2 million of that from taxpayers. The remainder is to be raised privately, with a $5,000-per-person contribution limit and a ban on donations from corporations and political action committees, as well as lobbyists.

"Barack Obama has pledged to change the way Washington works and to curb the influence of lobbyists," John Podesta, co-chairman of Obama's transition team, told reporters. "We are announcing rules that are the strictest, the most far-reaching ethics rules of any transition team in history."

To reinforce that point, Obama's camp office also issued statements from two Washington think tanks often at ideological odds, which praised the rules as tough and bold. Podesta said staff members who lobbied in the last year won't be allowed to work in their field in the transition and will have to cease all lobbying while they are part of the transition team. He said he would have "more to say" later regarding details about rules for lobbyists in the administration, apparently including whether such people could be hired immediately to work in areas on which they have not lobbied.

During his campaign, Obama declared: "I have done more to take on lobbyists than any other candidate in this race. I don't take a dime of their money, and when I am president, they won't find a job in my White House."

That left unclear whether he was referring to the relatively small number of staff members in the West Wing or to the hundreds of political appointees throughout an administration. Obama's campaign website said a lobbyist could join the administration as long as he or she didn't work on "regulations or contracts directly and substantially related to their prior employer for two years." He also proposed that political appointees be prohibited from lobbying the executive branch for the remainder of the administration, if they left government.

During the campaign, Obama's anti-lobbyist rules weren't ironclad. His staff included some lobbyists, though his aides said they stopped all such activities once they joined the campaign full time. He accepted fund-raising help from lobbyists registered with states and took money from associates and family members of federal lobbyists.

Brian Pallasch, president of the American League of Lobbyists, said yesterday that members of his organization grew weary of being pummeled by both presidential candidates. Invoking the right to present their case to lawmakers, thousands of lobbyists represent millions of Americans, Pallasch said.

The change of administration and the prospect of dividing up billions of dollars to bail out Wall Street firms and to stimulate the economy are bound to create more business for lobbyists, he said.

Pallasch said that many lobbyists have expertise on an issue that would prove helpful in improving the efficiency of the large and complex federal government. "They can use that knowledge to make the government better," he said. "I don't think that should necessarily be seen as a negative thing."

Podesta said yesterday that he has heard complaints that Obama's policy would leave "all the people who know everything out in the cold."

"So be it," he said. The American public expects Obama to carry through on his campaign pledges "so that the undue influence of Washington lobbyists and the revolving door of Washington ceases to exist," said Podesta, who was President Clinton's chief of staff in the final two years of that administration.

Podesta, in a wide-ranging update on the transition 70 days from the inauguration, said that Obama would like to begin naming Cabinet nominees as soon as possible, but would take the time needed to make the right choices.

He reiterated that Obama wants to provide aid to the troubled auto industry, but said no decisions have been made. Congress may meet next week in a lame-duck session and consider whether to approve an economic stimulus package and more aid to automakers, but it is unclear whether Republicans will support the measures. If Republicans balk, the matter will be held over until after Obama's Jan. 20 inauguration, when Democrats will have a larger majority in Congress.

Podesta also said that Obama has no plans to meet with foreign leaders at a global economic summit in Washington this weekend, hosted by President Bush. "We have one president at a time, and it's important that the president can speak for the United States at the summit," Podesta said.

Material from the Associated Press was also used in this report. Michael Kranish can be reached at kranish@globe.com.

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