Trump Seen ‘Sort of Like Obama’ in Treatment of Lobbyists

By Kenneth P. Doyle

Dec. 13 — Donald Trump is treating registered lobbyists “sort of like Obama” by restricting their ability to participate in the presidential transition process, lobbying expert Kenneth Gross said at a national ethics conference.

But unlike President Barack Obama, President-elect Trump hasn’t barred former lobbyists from his operations, Gross, an attorney with the firm Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, said during a panel at the annual Council on Governmental Ethics Laws (COGEL) conference in New Orleans.

Obama adopted a two-year “lookback” restriction, barring anyone who had worked as a lobbyist in the past two years from joining his administration. But Trump is allowing former lobbyists to join his transition team or inauguration committee—which raises money for inauguration ceremonies—as soon as they “de-register” as lobbyists, Gross said. Trump transition officials have indicated anyone who commits to stop lobbying and files papers to be dropped from the official lobbying rolls can join the Trump team, Gross added.

Some Trump Restrictions Tougher

Obama drew complaints from Washington lobbyists, both Republicans and Democrats, when he took office in 2008 with pledges to limit the interactions between his administration and K Street. Lobbyists complained of being branded with a “scarlet L,” Gross noted. Some observers said the administration would have been better served to focus on the links between lobbying and campaign fundraising, rather than demonizing all lobbyists.

Trump’s restrictions on lobbyist participation in his administration go further than Obama’s in some respects, Gross said. For example, Trump has called for a five-year ban on future lobbying by officials who leave the administration, compared to Obama’s two-year “revolving-door” restriction.

In addition, Trump’s restrictions cover state-registered lobbyists, while Obama’s rules covered only those registered under the federal Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA).

Number of Registered Lobbyists Dropping

The number of federally registered lobbyists has decreased continually over the eight years of the Obama administration due to restrictions imposed by the White House and Congress, Dan Schwager, general counsel to the secretary of the U.S. Senate who assists in administering federal lobbying law, said at the COGEL panel.

One such rule came from the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act, which Congress passed in 2007.

In recent years, the number of registered Washington lobbyists has dropped to about 11,000 from a high of nearly 15,000 in 2007, according to LDA filings tracked by the nonprofit Center for Responsive Politics. The center and others have complained that loopholes in the law and limited enforcement of the current disclosure regime appear to have invited some lobbyists to drop their LDA registrations while continuing to work as advocates.

Few Enforcement Cases

Only a few enforcement cases dealing with violations of the lobbying law have been announced during the law’s history, and no cases have come to light since the Justice Department announced a settlement last year involving a firm called the Carmen Group. The Washington lobbying firm had a 30-year history with multiple clients when it paid a record $125,000 fine for violating the federal lobbying law by failing to file disclosure reports. Previous LDA enforcement cases all involved smaller firms or solo lobbyists.

Keith Morgan, an official in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the District of Columbia who leads LDA compliance efforts, indicated at last year’s COGEL conference that more LDA enforcement cases were in the pipeline, according to Gross. However, no details were provided about other cases being investigated for disclosure violations, and no new announcements of enforcement action have occurred recently.

The federal disclosure law requires registration and periodic reporting by those hired to lobby Congress and top executive branch officials. The states and Canadian government all have similar disclosure regimes, which were reviewed at the COGEL conference. Some of these agencies exhibit more robust enforcement than what happens at the federal level.

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