MICHELE NORRIS, host:
It's now two days since President Obama issued new ethics rules for administration appointees, and one day since the White House started talking about waivers to the rules. As NPR's Peter Overby reports, this raises questions about how effectively Mr. Obama can fulfill one of his longstanding campaign promises.
PETER OVERBY: The rules themselves are a bit complicated. Here's how the president framed them as he signed the executive order on Wednesday.
(Soundbite of speech)
President BARACK OBAMA: As I often said during the campaign, we need to make the White House the people's house. And we need to close the revolving door that lets lobbyists come in to government freely, and lets them use their time in public service as a way to promote their own interests over the interests of the American people when they leave.
OVERBY: One stark example of the problem he referred to - energy industry lobbyist Steve Griles. In 2001, President Bush named Griles the number two official at the Interior Department. Griles pushed hard to lease federal lands to oil and gas companies, and he did favors for corrupt lobbyist Jack Abramoff, who allegedly enticed him with a job offer. The Abramoff case landed Griles in prison, and generally trashed whatever reputation lobbyists had left outside of Washington. But now, Defense Secretary Robert Gates has recommended William Lynn III, recently a lobbyist for Raytheon, as deputy defense secretary. The job needs Senate confirmation. Yesterday, Gates told reporters that Lynn was impressive in person and highly recommended by people Gates respects.
Secretary ROBERT GATES (U.S. Department of Defense): And I asked that an exception be made because I felt that he could play the role of a deputy - of the deputy in a better manner than anybody else that I saw.
OVERBY: Such waivers are possible under the new rules. But it's just not clear what the standards are, or how many waivers will be allowed, as White House press secretary Robert Gibbs acknowledged at today's briefing.
Unidentified Man: Do you have any estimated - I mean, limited numbers that should we expect...
Mr. ROBERT GIBBS (Press Secretary, White House): I don't know anything more than limited number.
OVERBY: Now, Senate Armed Services Committee Chairman Carl Levin wants more information from the White House before he sends Lynn's nomination to the Senate floor. And a watchdog group, a project on government oversight, has called on President Obama to withdraw the nomination or risk undermining his own executive order. Longtime lobbyist Robert Kelner says the order is meaningful, but he also says this.
Mr. ROBERT KELNER (Lobbyist): I don't think it goes nearly as far as people expected from President Obama's campaign rhetoric, or nearly as far as the administration is suggesting it goes.
OVERBY: Kelner sees another loophole besides the waivers. The order says departing administration officials can't lobby the administration until President Obama leaves office. Kelner says it's the difference between lobbying, that is, registering as a federal lobbyist, and engaging in lobbying activity. The executive order just refers to lobbying.
Mr. KELNER: One could make very strategic calls to senior political appointees. But if it did not constitute more than 20 percent of your activity for that client, you generally do not have to register.
OVERBY: Advocates of stronger government ethics rules praised the executive order as the toughest yet from any administration. Still, at the Campaign Legal Center, policy director Meredith McGehee says lobbying itself - the networking, the providing of information and so forth - isn't really the biggest problem.
Ms. MEREDITH MCGEHEE (Policy Director, Campaign Legal Center): Some of the questions arise because of the role that lobbyists play in the money game, not because of the actual lobbying activity.
OVERBY: But changing the way money is used in Washington would require an act of Congress. This executive order, Mr. Obama did with just a few strokes of his pen. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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