Ethics Rules May Limit Makeup Of Transition Team

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Barack Obama ran for president promising to change the way Washington works. Now that he's won, he is indeed starting to change the rules. His transition team has imposed tighter ethics restrictions, and that might affect the appointment of officials for the new administration.

STEVE INSKEEP, host:

It's Morning Edition from NPR News. I'm Steve Inskeep.

RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And I'm Renee Montagne. President-elect Obama vowed to bring change to Washington, and his transition team has started by changing the ethics rules. This has left some old Washington hands griping, as NPR's Peter Overby reports.

PETER OVERBY: As a candidate, President-elect Obama long ago began talking up his pledge to limit the power of the influence industry in Washington. Here he is in Manchester, New Hampshire, in June of 2007.

(Soundbite of Obama speech, Manchester, New Hampshire, 2007)

President-elect BARACK OBAMA: When I am president, I will make it absolutely clear that working in an Obama administration is not about serving your former employer, your future employer, or your bank account. It's about serving your country, and that's what comes first.

(Soundbite of applause)

OVERBY: Now, the Obama transition team is putting that idea into play. It's imposed limits on what registered lobbyists can do if they join the transition. They can't work on issues they've lobbied on over the past year. They can't hold transition jobs with titles that might impress clients later. They can't give or raise money for the transition fund. They can't pick up the tab for transition team costs. And - this is the big one - they can't lobby for one year on any issues they worked on for the transition.

It seems simple, but a lot of people are confused. There's one story going around about a top-level defense expert. He reportedly turned down a key job in the transition because he was afraid that the one-year rule would keep him from talking to anyone at the Pentagon. But that expert isn't actually a registered lobbyist, and so the rules wouldn't apply to him. Still, there are some lobbyists caught by the rules. Michael Meehan, President of BGR Public Relations, says he knows a couple of them.

Mr. MICHAEL MEEHAN (President, BGR Public Relations): The transition wanted them because they are very specialized. And they're like, I can't take one year of private sector employment out to help out for two months.

OVERBY: But there are plenty of specialists around who aren't lobbyists. Meehan spent 22 years working for Senate Democrats. He says senior Democrats on Capitol Hill could be recruited for the administration, and they won't be covered by the rules for lobbyists.

Mr. MEEHAN: So there'll be a quick movement from the smart people on Capitol Hill who will fill these jobs that now open up in the administration that have been closed off to them for eight years. That's a long time in one's career.

OVERBY: Other hirers might come from think tanks, universities, or state governments. Nick Allard is one of the top Democratic lobbyists at the Patton Boggs firm. He can sound a little skeptical about the Obama team's goals.

Mr. NICK ALLARD (Co-Chair, Public Policy Department, Patton Boggs LLP): You know, you don't want just virgins and academics in your government.

OVERBY: But on balance, Allard says, it's better this way.

Mr. ALLARD: It puts a premium on doing things the right way.

OVERBY: But there is another ethics venue for the Obama transition, and there it's the watchdogs who are raising questions. Several of the appointees to top transition posts have turned out to be bundlers. That is they collected substantial sums of money for the Obama campaign. One of them, Chicago heiress and businesswoman Penny Pritzker, raised at least $200,000, and she chaired the campaign's finance committee.

But other bundlers have experience making and carrying out policy. Federico Pena raised at least $50,000, but he also was secretary of transportation in the Clinton administration. Steve Weissman is with the Campaign Finance Institute which studies political money. He says each of the bundlers comes to the Obama transition team as a whole person with a collection of interests.

Mr. STEPHEN WEISSMAN (Associate Director for Policy, Campaign Finance Institute): They're not just - they're liberal or conservative ideology. They are, you know, the law firm and its clients that they work for. They're the hedge fund they head. And they'll carry those views and those interests into the job.

OVERBY: Jobs that are supposed to help President-elect Obama change the way Washington does business. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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