Two days after President Obama issued new ethics rules for top administration officials, a coalition of Washington watchdog groups is calling on a Senate committee to reject the president's choice for a key position at the Defense Department. The group claims that approving the nomination would undermine the new ethics policy.
William Lynn III's nomination to be deputy defense secretary is on hold at the Senate Armed Services Committee while Chairman Carl Levin (D-MI) awaits more information about Lynn's background. Lynn was a registered lobbyist for Raytheon, a prominent defense contractor, within the past two years — a violation of the executive order signed by Obama on Wednesday.
The controversy demonstrates the difficulties ahead as Obama seeks to fulfill one of his long-standing campaign promises. At the signing ceremony for the executive order, he explained the new ethics policy this way: "As I often said during the campaign, we need to make the White House the people's house. And we need to close the revolving door that lets lobbyists come into government freely, and lets them use their time in public service as a way to promote their own interests over the interests of the American people when they leave."
One stark example of the revolving door problem was energy industry lobbyist Steve Griles. In 2001, President Bush named Griles as deputy secretary of Interior. Griles pushed hard to lease federal lands to oil and gas companies. He also passed inside information to corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who allegedly both enticed Griles with a job offer and directed large contributions to an advocacy group run by a friend of Griles.
Griles was convicted of lying to investigators and landed in prison because of the Abramoff scandal. The widespread investigation stemming from Abramoff's confessions and e-mails has also generally trashed whatever was left of the lobbying profession's reputation.
In that climate, Obama made ethics reform a prominent issue on the campaign trail. He issued the executive order on his first full day in office.
On Thursday, Defense Secretary Robert Gates defended his choice of Lynn as deputy defense secretary. Gates told reporters that he found Lynn impressive in an interview, and Lynn was strongly recommended by people Gates respects.
"I asked that an exception be made because I felt that he could play the role of a deputy — of the deputy — in a better manner than anybody else that I saw," Gates said.
The executive order says that anyone who has been a registered lobbyist in the past two years cannot take an administration position in agencies that he or she lobbied, or work on issues that he or she lobbied, for two years. That's the provision where Lynn's nomination runs aground.
The order also says that administration officials who give up their jobs cannot come back and lobby the administration until President Obama has left office.
Waivers are possible under the order. But it's not clear what the standards are for a waiver, or how many waivers will be allowed. At Friday's White House briefing, press secretary Robert Gibbs acknowledged the confusion when a reporter asked how many waivers might be granted.
"I don't have anything more than 'limited number,' " Gibbs said.
Longtime lobbyist Robert Kelner says Obama's executive order is meaningful, but he added some qualifications.
"I don't think it goes nearly as far as people expected from President Obama's campaign rhetoric, or nearly as far as the administration is suggesting it goes," Kelner said.
He cited an apparent loophole in the limits on departing officials, which prevents them from lobbying the administration. Kelner says it's the difference between "lobbying" — that is, registering as a federal lobbyist — and "engaging in lobbying activity." The executive order just refers to lobbying.
"One could make very strategic calls to senior political appointees after leaving office," Kelner said. "But if it did not constitute more than 20 percent of your activity for that client, you generally do not have to register" as a federal lobbyist. He said it would be easy to fill the remaining 80-plus percent of billable hours with other work for the client.
Advocates of stronger government ethics rules praised the executive order as the toughest yet from any administration.
Still, at the Campaign Legal Center, policy director Meredith McGehee says lobbying itself — the networking, the providing of information and so forth — isn't really the biggest problem. Digging down at the root of the issue, she says, "some of the questions arise because of the role that lobbyists play in the money game, not because of the actual lobbying activity."
But changing the way money is used in Washington would require an act of Congress. Obama put this executive order into effect with just a few strokes of his pen.