The Obama administration is breeding new power players for Washington’s influence industry. Just don’t call them lobbyists.
Five years after President Barack Obama issued an executive order barring appointees from lobbying the executive branch for the rest of his presidency, administration officials are increasingly departing to join the advocacy industry.
The new twist: Many aren’t registering as lobbyists, acting instead as “strategic consultants” and “policy advisers.”
“The influence industry is moving underground,” said Sarah Bryner, research director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a government watchdog group.
The center counts among the officials who have left the executive branch under Obama at least 86 “unlobbyists,” which it defines as people not registered as lobbyists who work for business units devoted to influencing government policy. The list is culled from media reports, press releases and directories and probably understates the number, Bryner said. Another 46 are registered lobbyists.
The center doesn’t have comparable data for the same point in the Bush or Clinton administrations.
“We still have many people leaving government and taking jobs that in the past would have resulted in them registering as lobbyists,” she said. Now, they are “skirting the disclosure requirements.”
The advisers can avoid registering by not having direct communication with officials on behalf of clients. Instead, they may provide clients detailed maps of which officials exert behind-the-scenes influence and how to approach them. They can offer intelligence on where internal deliberations stand, what the dividing lines are among competing camps and which officials are persuadable, all gleaned from talking with ex-colleagues.
The migration at this stage of an administration is familiar to veteran Washington lobbyists such as Tom Korologos.
“Five minutes after inauguration for the second term, you start trying to figure out your exit strategy from the White House,” said Korologos, who was U.S. ambassador to Belgium under President George W. Bush and is now a strategic adviser for DLA Piper, a law firm with a government-affairs practice.
This is the moment of Obama administration officials’ “maximum value,” he said. “They want to take advantage of the three years that the president is still in office to get clients and to get settled in their job before they start worrying about what the next administration is going to be.”
The exodus from the administration includes some of its most senior figures: Pete Rouse, Obama’s former Senate chief of staff and a member of his inner circle; former White House communications director Anita Dunn; Jim Messina, Obama’s former deputy chief of staff and manager of his re-election campaign, and Robert Gibbs, the former White House press secretary.
Among the others are Elizabeth Fowler, a White House aide who helped implement the president’s health-care law and left her job shortly after Obama’s re-election. Her next stop: a senior-level post leading “global health policy” in the government affairs group for Johnson & Johnson, the pharmaceutical and medical devices maker.
The former officials and their spokesmen denied that they’re trying to reap gains from their administration ties.
Nadia Mostafa, a spokeswoman for Johnson & Johnson, said Fowler “does not engage in lobbying, and strictly abides by her legal and regulatory responsibilities.”
Rouse and Mark Patterson, a former Goldman Sachs Group Inc. lobbyist who was chief of staff to Treasury secretaries Timothy Geithner and Jacob Lew, last month joined the law firm Perkins Coie to lead a new Washington “public and strategic affairs practice.” Rouse and Patterson didn’t respond to requests for comment.
Dunn’s client list at SKDKnickerbocker includes TransCanada Corp., which is trying to build the Keystone XL pipeline. Shawn Howard, a TransCanada spokesman, said Dunn has done work developing ad campaigns and marketing in favor of the pipeline yet doesn’t lobby the administration.
Messina has formed a consulting group, whose clients include the American Gaming Association. He’s also national chairman of Organizing for Action, a nonprofit advocacy group that grew out of Obama’s election campaigns. He didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Stephanie Cutter, a former White House communications adviser and a deputy campaign manager for the president’s re-election, started Precision Strategies, whose client list includes Bank of America Corp.
Cutter said that with the exception of publicly opposing the Keystone pipeline, her firm doesn’t try to influence policy.
“We help companies, campaigns and nonprofits analyze and understand their audience and strengthen their brand through very targeted and data-driven strategic campaigns,” she said.
Gibbs founded the Incite Agency, a communications strategy firm whose clients include pharmaceutical maker Eli Lilly & Co., Politico reported. He didn’t respond to a request for comment.
Ken Salazar, the former Interior secretary, moved to the law firm WilmerHale’s regulatory and governmental affairs department where, according to the firm’s website, he “provides legal, strategic and policy advice.”
Salazar said he doesn’t “contact anybody in the administration on any business issue” though he does advise clients on “how to approach the government.”
Former Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood in January joined DLA Piper as a “senior policy adviser.” LaHood said he makes clear to clients that he won’t “make a phone call on their behalf” though he does provide advice on “how programs work and how decisions are made.”
Kurt Campbell, an assistant secretary of state who was an architect of a move to ease sanctions on Myanmar, left last year to start the Asia Group. One of his first ventures: seeking a contract with Myanmar to improve Yangon’s airport.
Nirav Patel, chief operating officer for the Asia Group, said the firm doesn’t try to influence the Obama administration and focuses on giving risk assessments and advice on regional politics to companies with Asian ventures. A consortium the firm joined to bid on the Myanmar contract dissolved when a competitor won, he said.
One former administration official said an example of a strategic adviser’s work was when he counseled a client that, if he wanted to try to blunt the impact of a proposed regulation, he should make the case to Valerie Jarrett, a senior Obama adviser whose duties include serving as a liaison with business leaders.
The adviser suggested to the client that the way to persuade Jarrett would be to have high-level executives of major companies speak with her and offer examples of job cuts or business losses they would sustain, said the adviser, who asked not to be identified in discussing private conversations.
The insularity of Obama’s top advisers increases the value of such tactical advice, some lobbyists said.
“Any first-hand insight, meaning somebody who has left there, is valuable,” said Patrick Griffin, a former Clinton administration official and lobbyist.
Mike McCurry, President Bill Clinton’s onetime White House press secretary, said it is reasonable for former presidential advisers to tap their experience to provide counsel to private clients in a country that enshrines in the Constitution a right to petition the government over grievances.
“It’s not a hugely bad thing that people go out and help others understand how the White House works, how to raise issues and gain a higher profile for issues,” said McCurry, now a partner in the communications firm Public Strategies Washington Inc.
Howard Marlowe, a 35-year veteran lobbyist, said many of the legal distinctions the Obama alumni are making to avoid registering as lobbyists aren’t significant in the real world of Washington’s influence industry.
“All around me there are people that are doing strategic consulting, government affairs consulting, you call it whatever you want,” said Marlowe, a former president of the American League of Lobbyists -- a trade group that, in a sign of the times, has since changed its name to the Association of Government Relations Professionals.
“It’s a distinction without a difference with one exception,” he added. “We in the lobbyist profession register, and the public and media can at least find out who we work for, what the issues are that we’re hired to work on, and what we’re getting paid.”