WASHINGTON (CNN) -- Tim Geithner may be the latest political piñata in Washington these days, but -- policy aside -- there may be another reason he is the one fellow everyone is picking on at Treasury: He's there alone.
President Obama's ethics code requires that no lobbyist can work for an agency he may have lobbied.
Believe it or not, Geithner is the only confirmed official at his department. Some top nominees, even those who have served in government before, have decided to withdraw. Others are still pending as they go through arduous background checks that one pro-Obama Democrat calls "maddening vetting hell."
Sure, this is about extensive scrutiny to make sure no one has a tax problem after Geithner's own embarrassing unpaid tax bill. But the staffing problem is not just at Treasury, and it goes way beyond the time-consuming nature of extensive background checks.
It's also about overreaching anti-lobbyist rules.
Consider Tom Malinowski. He's the advocacy director for Human Rights Watch, an expert on genocide and torture. But when it came time for a top human rights job at the State Department, he was turned away.
Why? "Because he lobbied against torture," says one incredulous administration official. "It's crazy."
But the rules are the rules: The ethics code requires that no lobbyist can be hired to work for an agency he may have lobbied.
So, just to clarify: Someone like Malinowski who lobbied against torture and is a widely acknowledged expert on international human rights law is, er, blackballed. More to the point, he was shown the door precisely because he tried to influence Congress on an issue that both he and the administration agree, and care deeply about. (Malinowski won't comment.)
Only in the Alice-in-Wonderland world of Washington would this make any sense. And it still doesn't. It's just a prime instance of the problems that can arise when great-sounding (theoretical) campaign one-liners rub up against the (real) difficulties of trying to staff a government. In other words, the short-term interest in demonizing all lobbyists has led to some very difficult staffing problems.
So, if you're an environmental expert and lobbyist, forget about the Environmental Protection Agency. But you might want to think about some work in the health field.
That is, unless someone says you're a lucky exception! They're rare, but William Lynn is one. He's a top defense department appointee who once worked as a lobbyist for Raytheon, a military contractor. The White House says that (a) it hasn't had much trouble staffing the government and (b) is willing to make reasonable exceptions. So far we have only seen a handful.
The problem has made it difficult to operate at every department.
"A lot of good people just can't go into government," says one administration official. "It's a huge departure from the spirit of what they wanted."
Indeed, he adds, here's an unintended consequence: "We're setting up a system where the only people who qualify to work in government are the ones who never actually left government."
Oh, great. So instead of getting the best and the brightest from finance and elsewhere, we're recycling some folks from Capitol Hill. Not that they're unqualified, but the administration needs input from multiple sources -- outside of Washington. On top of that, the Treasury has another public relations problem: The appointment of anyone with any tie to a bank that has been bailed out or any institution that is tied to the mortgage mess is a non-starter. No wonder it's hard to find the experts.
Yet much of this problem is self-inflicted. The no-lobbyist rule could have been "softened" to exclude nonprofit lobbyists.
The administration decided against that, one senior official tells me. "We didn't want to label people as 'good lobbyists' or 'bad lobbyists.' " Besides, he adds, "We think we are flexible."
That's not the feeling you get speaking with either those jumping hoops to try to get into government and those who have been turned away. As the administration faces its huge economic crisis, it needs all hands on deck.
After all, you can't rebuild public confidence in a government if you don't have one.