August 11, 2009 -- Two ex-lobbyists headed into Obama administration posts have raised anew questions about the president's efforts to "close the revolving door" between government and the lobbying world.
Robin Raphel, a former longtime diplomatic official who left the State Department in 2005, has been rehired to coordinate non-military aid to the Republic of Pakistan. To take the job, Raphel had to leave her job at the lobbying firm Cassidy & Associates, where for a month she was part of a team representing Pakistan.
Also last week, the White House tapped former lobbyist Neil MacBride to be U.S. attorney for the Eastern District of Virginia. MacBride, a former senior aide to Vice President Joseph Biden when he was a senator, was a lobbyist and executive officer for the Business Software Alliance in 2007. Lobby filings show he was registered to lobby Congress for that business group through December of that year, although administration officials maintain he stopped lobbying for the group that July.
Days after taking office, President Obama put in place rules he said would "close the revolving door that lets lobbyists come into government freely" and use their time in government "to promote their own interests over the interests of the American people whom they serve."
Obama's policy ostensibly bans anyone from working with issues about which they lobbied that department at any point in the past two years. As the rule is written, it would not apply to MacNeil; there is question whether it would apply to Raphel, or if she would be cleared thanks to a cut-out in the rule exempting senior foreign service officers.
"I'm not going to defend the administration on this one," said one Democratic congressional staffer familiar with the Raphel appointment, who declined to be named.
Since the beginning, the aide noted, the White House has been waiving the ban "for people who clearly violate the policy." He pointed to the appointment of Raytheon lobbyist Bill Lynn to a top Pentagon post as a prime example.
"The initial policy was stupid, a big mistake," said the aide. "Only now they've realized what a blunder it was." He compared it to former President Bill Clinton's freshman-year promise to cut the size of his White House staff by 25 percent, which he said wound up being more problematic than effective.
White House Responds
The White House said Monday it was not reconsidering its policy. A spokesman did not comment on the Raphel nomination. The State Department did not respond to an inquiry; the Justice Department declined comment. Neither Raphel nor MacNeil could be reached for comment.
"This has been one of the most contentious issues I've had to try to work with the administration around," said Lee Mason of OMBWatch, a D.C.-based nonprofit that watchdogs government accountability.
"Ultimately it's going to be up to people who listened to the president, during the campaign, lament the role of lobbyists" in government, said Dave Leventhal of the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money and influence in government. "If [the appointments] don't satisfy the people who put him in office, it's incumbent on them to speak up."
Melanie Sloan, a former federal prosecutor who now runs the group Citizens for Responsibility and ethics in Washington, had praise for MacBride but told the Washington Post the problem was "whether Obama is being consistent." The Obama administration "wanted the American people to think they weren't going to hire any lobbyists, and that was never realistic."
A brush with the spotlight in 2005 made Raphel a minor hero of the antiwar left, when sharply critical comments she made to a government historian about U.S. efforts in Iraq were unearthed and made public.
"What one needs to understand is that these decisions were ideologically based," Raphel said in the 2004 interview, discussing miscues and bungles in the U.S. effort to build a new Iraqi civil society in the wake of its military invasion. "They were not based on an analytical, historical understanding. They were based on ideology."
"Oh, yes, there were political people round and about," she said in the interview. "One had to be careful."