Politico

Biden wrestles with role K Street will play on transition team


Joe Biden has pledged to crack down on the “improper influence of lobbyists” if he defeats President Donald Trump.

On Thursday, he’ll have to reveal for the first time how far he’ll go to block lobbyists and others who populate Washington’s influence industry from working on his transition team — per a new law passed earlier this year. As his roster of aides and outside advisers with corporate ties demonstrates, Biden faces a tricky balancing act to please progressive groups pushing for unprecedented restrictions and still bring some longtime staffers and allies on board.

While progressives have called for stringent internal rules to prevent special interests from exerting too much influence on personnel and policy, some lobbyists and other Washington hands worry rules that are too strict will make it needlessly hard for Biden to staff a federal government that’s seen an exodus of civil servants under Trump.

Paul Bock, an Obama transition staffer who later became a lobbyist, said that in 2008 he argued against banning the participation of certain lobbyists “who might be able to help us facilitate a more efficient transition.” But, Bock wrote in an email, “I understood then — and understand now — that the added experience has to be weighed against the perception that the new Administration might be too close to the interests represented by lobbyists.”

Biden’s transition team has already barred registered lobbyists — with the exception of union lobbyists — from joining a set of working groups that are brainstorming policy ideas to pursue, should he win the White House.

Biden’s campaign won’t say who’s leading the working groups and has prohibited their members from speaking to reporters. But according to people familiar with them, many of those helping lead the groups are Obama administration veterans who went on to advise corporate America on how to navigate Washington.

One of the co-chairs of Biden’s “innovation” policy working group, for example, is Mignon Clyburn, whom Obama tapped to serve on the Federal Communications Commission. After she left, Clyburn signed on last year as a paid consultant to T-Mobile as it pursued a merger with Sprint — work that drew criticism from consumer groups.

Chris Jennings, a co-chair of the health care policy working group, is a former lobbyist who went on to serve as a White House aide to Obama. He now runs a consulting firm through which he’s advised corporate clients such as CVS Health and General Motors, as well as the Democratic Governors Association, the Service Employees International Union and others less likely to draw progressives’ ire, according to his website.

And Carlos Monje, a co-chair of the infrastructure policy working group, worked as Twitter’s director of public policy before leaving earlier this month to join Biden’s transition team. He worked as an assistant secretary in the Transportation Department during the Obama administration.

Clyburn declined to comment. Jennings and Monje didn’t respond to requests for comment.

It’s unclear how much sway the working groups have — one campaign aide said they have little real influence over Biden’s agenda. But Biden’s campaign and transition team have leaned on former lobbyists and K Street types, too.

Cynthia Hogan, who’s working on Biden’s transition, was a registered lobbyist for Apple until 2018, according to disclosure filings. And Steve Ricchetti, a top Biden campaign aide who’s seen as a contender to be White House chief of staff if Biden wins, worked for years as a lobbyist for clients including AT&T, General Motors and pharmaceutical companies; The New York Times reported this summer that he remains a consultant to AT&T.

In a statement, Biden campaign spokesman Michael Gwin said, “Donald Trump’s led the most corrupt administration in history, and Joe Biden is going to clean up after his mess by putting in place tough safeguards to prevent the sort of self-dealing and pay-to-play that’s flourished in the Washington swamp on Trump’s watch. As President, Biden will strengthen ethics rules across the Executive Branch, he’ll empower government watchdogs to guard against conflicts of interest, and he’ll finally put our government back on the side of ordinary people.”

As Biden’s transition team have drafted its ethics rules, progressive groups such as the Revolving Door Project, and Demand Progress have pushed Biden to bar not only lobbyists but also others who work in Washington’s so-called “influence industry” — strategists, communications consultants and those who organize coalitions to help pass or block legislation, among others — but don’t cross the legal threshold in terms of amount of time directly lobbying lawmakers that would require them to register as lobbyists.

“Many people who engage in what normal people would describe as lobbying structure their employment so as to be able to avoid that label,” said David Segal, Demand Progress’ executive director. “So we want language that presumptively keeps out current and recent corporate lobbyists — in the colloquial sense, not just those who meet the registration requirement.”

Segal and others also want consultants and lawyers working for Biden’s transition to disclose clients they’ve represented in recent years. And they’re pressing Biden to close loopholes they say have allowed inappropriate influence from Wall Street in past transitions.

“Michael Froman played a substantial role in the Obama transition working on the economic plan, literally while on Citibank’s payroll,” Segal said, referring to a former Harvard Law School classmate of Obama’s who went on to become his U.S. trade representative. “That’s not OK.”

Obama’s restrictions were still the most stringent of any president-elect — and included a ban on lobbyists working on his transition and on former lobbyists working on issue areas they’d lobbied on or agencies they’d lobbied in the past year.

The left, however, wants the bar set much higher.

Watchdog groups such as Public Citizen have been pushing Biden’s team to include provisions in the ethics memo beyond an expansive definition of a lobbyist — including the appointment of an “ethics czar” to monitor and enforce ethics rules for transition team members, public disclosure of who the team is meeting with, and full transparency around the financial assets and work history of the officials involved to ensure no one pushes policies that could enrich themselves or their former employers.

The progressive push echoes reforms advanced by Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) in her 2018 anti-corruption bill. Warren proposed barring corporate lobbyists from taking government jobs for six years after they de-register, with a two-year ban for other lobbyists.

Warren’s bill went nowhere in Congress, but a provision requiring transition teams to disclose their ethics plan before elections made it into a bipartisan bill that Trump signed earlier this year. Biden will be the first candidate to do so. (A line in Warren’s bill intended to force transition staffers to disclose any clients or other outside sources of income didn’t make into the legislation.)

The rules Biden’s team will make public this week must address how the transition will handle lobbyists and registered foreign agents, and they could signal how strict a Biden administration would be about jamming the revolving door between the federal government and private sector to prevent conflicts of interest.

The rules aren’t, however, legally binding. While the press and watchdog groups will undoubtedly call out the Biden transition if they fail to live up to their promises, enforcement essentially operates on the honor system.

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