Trump has proposed a five-year ban on lobbying after leaving his administration
Washington has plenty of ways to get around being called a "lobbyist"
Reformers elated by President-elect Donald Trump’s new tough ban on lobbying after serving in his administration can just as quickly find a reason to be disappointed.
That’s because they’ve heard and seen this before.
“I am in this race to tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over,” then-Sen. Barack Obama said in November 2007. His administration put a two-year ban on lobbying post-service.
In 2016, Trump channeled the same anger against Washington and is proposing to build on the same policies Obama instituted.
“Every day you turn on the nightly news, you hear about how some self-interested banker or some Washington insider says they oppose the Trump campaign. That’s because I don’t need them. I don’t want them. I’m going to do what’s good for you,” Trump said in Akron, Ohio, in August. “Or some big-time lobbyist says they oppose Donald Trump’s campaign. Because I don’t want the lobbyists. I’ve had plenty of lobbyists. They do a good job. They give you whatever you want. I wear their opposition as a badge of honor.”
The announcement the President-elect would ban administration officials from returning to lobbying for five years after they leave government sent shockwaves through the influence industry on Thursday, even if the exact definition of “lobbyist” wasn’t given.
The move, along with a lifetime ban on lobbying for foreign governments, immediately introduces another disincentive for an administration already struggling to retain top talent and raises the prospect of a vibrant lobbying industry that hums along as well as ever — but underground and hidden from disclosure, not eradicated.
The chaser: as under Obama, the swamp need not be drained, merely sprayed with Febreze.
“The swamp is so deep in Washington that simply saying that there are some people who can have jobs in the administration but can’t cash in for five years is such a weak response to the pretty significant message that America just delivered last week,” said David Donnelly of Every Voice, one of the many good-government groups split by the new Trump guidelines. “If this is the only thing he did, they will see that nothing has changed.”
Transition officials said Wednesday that they would expand upon Obama’s executive order which forbid administration officials from registering as lobbyists for two years after serving him, a rule that many influence-peddlers today say has done little to actually curb ethics breaches or impact K Street. The Trump aides added Thursday that the new policy would apply to officials looking to work for overseas governments, too, for their entire lives.
Yet the worry among lobbying officials on Thursday wasn’t that they would suddenly be out of a line of work. The five-year ban would merely redouble their resourcefulness as they search for workarounds that allow them to not technically classify as “lobbyists” once leaving the administration but rather to occupy some other very similar role in Washington officialdom.
“People will escape: ‘I’m a grassroots person.’ ‘I’m a digital person.’ ‘I’m this or that.’ But you’re actually doing the same thing I’m doing,” said Paul Miller, a leader for a Washington lobbying trade group. “If you implement this, you’re going to have a chilling effect.”
Miller said he was already fielding conversations on Thursday from concerned lobbyists worried about the emergence of a “shadow lobbying community” that operates free from disclosure laws meant to shine a spotlight on how influence is created and wielded in Washington. Miller said he had contacted Trump Tower on behalf of the lobbying industry but had not fetched a response.
He chalked the move up to pure politics.
“I have to question the motives. You had a campaign that at the 11th hour in October decided to pull out ethics reform,” Miller argued, who said his worries spiked this week when the transition team purged its corps of lobbyists, even though they sorely needed the experience. “You better not be skeptical. You better take this as a real threat — not just this. We are a target.”
Questions remain outstanding: How will officials enforce a five-year-ban that theoretically could outlast a one-term president? Will the administration monitor and penalize lobbyists who de-register in order to avoid the stricter guidelines? And how will Trump learn from Obama, who came into Washington preaching hope and change but largely disappointed ethics-reformers who dreamed of a gridlock-free government?
“They were worthy of praise, but at the same time it became pretty apparent over the next eight years that there were big holes,” said Paul Ryan, a prominent Washington ethics reformer, of the Obama platform points. “I would not call this cosmetic. I would say this is one small step.”