President-elect Barack Obama, now recruiting for his administration, is trying to fulfill campaign promises of sweeping ethics restrictions that could deter some potential appointees.
Vowing to combat the power of “lobbyists who kill good ideas and good plans with secret meetings and campaign checks,” Obama has laid out more detailed and more onerous ethics rules than any previous president. He has pledged to bar appointees from working on matters involving their former employers for two years, prohibit departing officials from lobbying his administration for its duration, and require all political appointees to publicly disclose every meeting with registered lobbyists.
But in a city where policy experts typically work for private interests between stints in public service – and often have spouses or family members in the same business – such measures could hamper the new administration, scholars and ethics experts say.
“The problem for Obama is that he will be limiting himself in the expertise he can tap,” said Martha Kumar, a Towson University professor who studies presidential transitions, noting that President Bill Clinton faced a similar difficulty with less sweeping rules.
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Some Republicans see a trove of political ammunition in Obama's promises about public transparency. He has pledged to post online all of his appointees' employment histories and personal financial disclosures, along with regular updates of any meetings or conversations they hold with registered lobbyists.
“If they want to hold themselves to that standard of transparency, then they will be ridiculed continuously, in incessant attacks from the outside,” said David Bossie, an operative who once specialized in unflattering research on the Clinton White House and now heads the conservative group Citizens United.
Others are already noting the potential gaps in the rules. Many people in Washington make money by consulting for private interests seeking to influence the government but without engaging in the specific activities that require registration as a lobbyist, thus sidestepping some of Obama's restrictions.
“There are so many people who don't have to register that it captures not so many,” Kumar said.
Some of the challenges and potential ambiguities in Obama's lofty goals are already apparent in his presidential transition team, which will help select his administration's senior staff.
Obama has required everyone advising his transition team to remove themselves from matters involving a broad spectrum of potential conflicts of interest – issues in which the adviser has a financial interest, in which family or business associates have a financial interest, or on which the person lobbied over the previous year. In cases of an appearance of conflict, Christopher Lu, the transition team's executive director and a member of Obama's Senate staff, must referee.
But John Podesta, a former Clinton administration chief of staff and the leader of the transition team, presents several potential questions.
Podesta is chairman of the Center for American Progress, a liberal research group that solicits private donations and lobbies on a variety of issues. While he has not personally acted as a registered lobbyist in the past year, according to the disclosure filings for the center's political advocacy arm, he had earlier lobbied on issues including the war and reconstruction in Iraq, Defense Department spending, the treatment of military detainees, energy issues, bio-fuels and oil prices.