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Barack Obama promised a "clean break from business as usual" in Washington. It hasn’t quite worked out that way.
From the start, he made exceptions to his no-lobbyist rule. And now, embarrassing details about Cabinet-nominee Tom Daschle’s tax problems and big paychecks from special interest groups are raising new questions about the reach and sweep of the new president’s promised reforms.
Maybe he shouldn’t have promised so much, some open-government advocates say. They’re willing to cut him some slack — for now.
On Jan. 21, the day after his inauguration, Obama issued an executive order barring any former lobbyists who join his administration from dealing with matters or agencies related to their lobbying work. Nor could they join agencies they had lobbied in the previous two years.
However, William J. Lynn III, his choice to become the No. 2 official at the Defense Department, recently lobbied for military contractor Raytheon. And William Corr, tapped as deputy secretary at Health and Human Services, lobbied through most of last year as an anti-tobacco advocate. Corr says he will take no part in tobacco matters in the new administration.
"Even the toughest rules require reasonable exceptions," said White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs.
That was a big step back from Obama’s unambiguous swipe at lobbyists in November 2007, while campaigning for the Democratic presidential nomination. "I don’t take a dime of their money," he said, "and when I am president, they won’t find a job in my White House."
The waivers granted for Lynn and Corr caused some in Washington to wince. But others, including many longtime advocates of tougher ethical standards, suggest it all says as much about deeply ingrained practices — and even necessities — in Washington as about a new president.
"Sometimes you can over-promise," said former Sen. Warren Rudman, a Republican from New Hampshire.
"This government is very complicated," he said. "Often you’ll need people with a lot of experience in certain areas," and current or former lobbyists sometimes fit that bill best.
"It was probably a mistake to come down so hard on lobbyists," said Melanie Sloan, who is not shy about criticizing lobbyists or politicians as executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington. "I think the Obama folks’ intentions were great here," she said. "But sometimes you realize you can’t actually govern on just what you campaigned on."
Sloan and others said embarrassments over Daschle, one of several top Obama appointees with a history of influencing government for clients, should not detract from the president’s first-day vow to sharply limit the role of lobbyists in his administration.
Daschle, a former senator tapped to head Health and Human Services, is not technically a lobbyist. But he was paid more than $5.2 million over the past two years as he advised health insurers and hospitals and worked in other industries such as energy and telecommunications.
Fred Wertheimer of Democracy21 is one of Washington’s best-known advocates of more open and honest government. He called Obama’s executive order "unprecedented and almost revolutionary in nature" and "a direct attack on the culture of Washington and the way business is done here."
"A few waivers will not undermine it," he said, provided they are justified and limited.
The best way to limit the influence of wealthy special interests, Wertheimer said, is to increase public funding for presidential elections and restrict the amount that private business can pump into campaigns and politics. That could pave the way for tighter restrictions on influence-peddling in Congress, he said.
Obama declined public financing for his campaign so he could raise and spend hundreds of millions of dollars on his own. Some people saw that a virtual death knell for campaign public financing, but Wertheimer said he believes Obama will deliver on aides’ promises to help "repair the system."
Daschle, the former Senate majority leader from South Dakota, strikes many in Washington as a good example of why the revolving door between government and highly paid private-sector jobs can be troubling, but also why an outright ban on such movements would be unwise.
Even Republicans praised Daschle’s cerebral, soft-spoken approach to government and politics, and his expertise on subjects including health care. He didn’t choose to leave Congress for a high-paying job, but was defeated in a close re-election bid in 2004.
Once out, he was attractive and valuable to all sorts of government-regulated industries, even if he never registered as a lobbyist who could make straightforward appeals for or against legislation affecting his clients.
He received more than $2 million over two years as a senior policy adviser for the Washington law firm Alston & Bird. He also earned more than $2 million in consulting fees from InterMedia Advisors LLC of New York, an investment firm specializing in buyouts and industry consolidation. An associate let Daschle use his car and driver, for which Daschle had to pay late taxes and interest.
Several health groups also paid Daschle $15,000 or more to speak to their gatherings.
"He welcomed every opportunity to make his case to the American public at large, and the health industry in particular, that America can’t afford to ignore the health care crisis any longer," said his spokeswoman Jenny Backus.
Wertheimer, of Democracy21, said that rather than dwell on Daschle’s problems or the Corr and Lynn waivers, he focuses on Obama’s executive order and the hope of progress to come on public financing of campaigns.
The executive order "laid down a mark," Wertheimer said. "More has to be done, and tough battles have to be won."
Associated Press writer Julie Pace contributed to this report.