Obama Transition Team Limits Lobbyists' Roles

As President-elect Barack Obama's team begins the transition to governing, it is keeping its distance from one group in Washington. The campaign barred registered lobbyists from making contributions, and now the transition team is limiting how deeply lobbyists may be involved in laying the groundwork for the new administration and serving in it afterward.

Unlike the campaign's ban on lobbyists' money, the rules for the transition team say lobbyists can participate in limited ways. But after the transition is over, they can't lobby on anything they worked on during the transition.

They can't use their lobbying budget to underwrite transition team activity — the kind of thing that could curry favor. And they can't hold titled jobs in the transition — the kind of thing they could use to impress clients.

But like the money ban, all of this applies only to federally registered lobbyists.

"It's both overinclusive and underinclusive," said Rob Kelner, a government ethics lawyer in Washington, D.C. He knows where the lines are drawn in federal lobbying law — and how people get around them.

Basically, he said, the law is a blunt instrument. Sometimes someone has to register as a lobbyist, say, to write a single letter. And some people — like those who run grass-roots lobbying operations — have a huge impact but don't have to register at all.

Still, Kelner said behavior in Washington probably will change because of the transition team restrictions and others likely to follow for the administration itself.

"Whether behavior is changed in a purely strategic fashion, in which people try to game the system, or whether it's changed in a more genuine and meaningful way, I think is difficult to predict," Kelner said.

But for Democratic lobbyists, it's another blow. Their side was out of power, and business was bad. Then came the lobbying scandal on the Republican side, and highflying lobbyist Jack Abramoff went to prison.

Now, Democratic lobbyist Michael Lewan says he and his colleagues are really fired up and ready to go.

"You know, the entire business has been vilified, and I think that's wrong. I hope that President-elect Obama will use a certain sense of fairness and common sense," Lewan said — the sense to take advantage of a willing and able contingent of loyal Democrats.

"Because the Obama administration needs smart, experienced people who know how both government and the private sector work," he said.

Another Democratic lobbyist, Sandy Stuart, sees an irony in it. Democrats — even the ones pulling down big salaries lobbying for big corporations — now want to get back into government.

"I mean, I do know people that would love an opportunity to serve in this administration. Democrats are very — they're public servants. They're good government people, and they want to be able to be a part of it," Stuart said.

But if they can't be a part of it, there can be consolations.

Beth Solomon, a Washington headhunter, says corporate America is hungry for lobbyists not downtown, where the administration is, but up on Capitol Hill.

"Whereas President Obama may have a bipartisan attitude, the legislative process entails a majority and a minority, and you will still need to have the majority on your side to get legislation passed," she said.

For someone with lobbying experience and connections in the Senate Democratic leadership, Solomon said, it's a seller's market.

"I think sort of half a million dollars is a starting place, to over a million typically. That's the expectation of sort of a Year 1 kind of compensation," she said.

And the expectations are only going upward, she added.

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