Be Careful What You Pitch For

Published: December 17, 2008

By Jim Lichtman
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“I am in this race to tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over. I have done more than any other candidate in this race to take on lobbyists — and won. They have not funded my campaign, they will not run my White House, and they will not drown out the voices of the American people when I am president.”

— Barack Obama, from a speech in Des Moines, IA

President-elect Obama has made it clear in both speech and action that he will do whatever it takes to insure that the people’s interests come before special interests. In fact, his own transition website, change.gov, has an entire page devoted to “The Obama-Biden Plan” for ethics reform.

But how do the ethics rules work when it comes to members of the president’s own cabinet?

According to the Obama-Biden Plan:

“No political appointees in the Obama-Biden administration will be permitted to work on regulations or contracts directly and substantially related to their prior employer for two years. And no political appointee will be able to lobby the executive branch after leaving government service during the remainder of the administration.”

However, in a recent Washington Post article (Dec. 15) “Linda Hall Daschle is one of the most important aviation lobbyists in town. Ms. Daschle is also the wife of Tom Daschle…” whom Mr. Obama has tapped as the next secretary of health and human services.

“Tom Downey,” the Post reports, “is the founder and chairman of a lobbying firm with dozens of clients, including several with interests in energy policy. Mr. Downey is also the husband of Carol M. Browner, Mr. Obama’s likely choice to be the next White House energy czar.

So, how can these “high-powered” spouses continue their respective careers while maintaining the high standards that Mr. Obama has promised?

Transition spokeswoman Stephanie Cutter said that in order “to prevent conflicts of interests administration officials will recuse themselves from any issue involving a spouse, and spouses will be banned from lobbying relevant agencies.”

“In a bid to avoid conflicts,” the Post said, “Ms. Daschle has announced that she will leave her lobbying firm, where colleagues represent health care clients, and plans to start her own practice, which will not accept clients with interests in health care policy.

“Mr. Downey has not disclosed his plans and did not respond to an interview request,” the Post reported, “but Ms. Cutter said that if Ms. Browner became energy czar, Mr. Downey’s firm would no longer accept energy or environment-related work.

“Joan Claybrook, the president of Public Citizen, a government watchdog group, said it would be going too far to require spouses of administration officials to give up their careers and ‘go do something else, like home decorating.’

While that may be true, if President-elect Barack Obama wishes to live-up to both the spirit and letter of his own ethics policy, he and every member of his team need to make sure that even the appearance of a conflict should be avoided.

The American people have given Mr. Obama their vote of confidence.  It is now up to him to deliver what he has offered to the millions who are placing their trust in his words back in September –

“Your voices should speak louder than the whispers of lobbyists.”

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