Not even three weeks in office and President Barack Obama is discovering that being in charge is no bed of roses, even when you have a garden of them just outside your Oval Office windows. February’s frost has bitten a bit of the bloom off the new President’s aspirations as the swamp of hypocrisy and partisan inertia that is Beltway Washington took its toll.
Weighed down by tax return problems and charges of DC influence peddling, former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle pulled out as President Obama’s candidate for Secretary of Health and Human Services — just as the President was trying to accelerate momentum for Senate passage of his economic stimulus plan, and the Republicans were equally trying to slam on the brakes.
Daschle’s withdrawal, coupled with the same day, tax-inflicted stepping down of Nancy Killefer, who was to be the White House’s chief performance officer, forced President Obama to use a lightning round of network interviews he’d intended as stimulus promotion to defend himself against charges that his oratorical hopes of cleaning up government and solving all its problems had hit a speed bump.
The resulting “I screwed up” mea culpas were refreshing in a town where shifting blame to the other guy is the standard modus operandi. But whether contrition for the cameras, combined with President Obama’s continued high popularity, can translate into forward-moving action remains unknown. By week’s end, President Obama had dropped his conciliatory tone of bipartisanship and gone on the attack to try to rescue the stimulus package.
But one thing the Daschle affair and the problems with other Obama appointments makes clear is that while new administrations come and go, what hasn’t changed — yet — is the phenomenon of the revolving door, the back-and-forth fandango of lobbyists moving into government jobs at the same time that officials out of power parlay their resumes into suites on K Street. Republicans and Democrats, liberals and conservatives — all are guilty.
A recent report from the non-partisan organization CREW, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, found that of 24 men and women who served as cabinet members during the Bush Administration, seventeen of them left office and raced to private sector jobs with some 119 companies. Sixty-five of those businesses spend money lobbying the United States government — and 40 are directly hitting up government agencies the former cabinet secretary was in charge of.
Former Attorney General John Ashcroft started his own lobbying firm. Energy Secretary Spencer Abraham joined the board of Occidental Petroleum. Tom Ridge, the first Secretary of Homeland Security, is well-known for his involvement with companies profiting from the fear of terrorist attack or natural disaster, including Lucent Technologies and Home Depot, where duct tape is king.
But the poster boy seems to be former Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy Thompson, who CREW says has worked for 42 different companies since he left the Bush cabinet in 2005. They include Centene Corporation, which runs Medicaid plans in seven states; the pharmaceutical company Novartis; and even an operation called Whey Cool Health Foods. Logistics Health, a medical readiness company of which Thompson is president, saw its federal contracts go from $19.9 million in 2003 to $104.8 million in 2007. The company claims Thompson never contacted folks at Health and Human Services on its behalf, but Logistics’ founder and chairman told a Wisconsin newspaper, “Tommy really is able to get us in to see the right people.”
Maybe you thought the in-and-out revolving door would shudder to a halt with a new President who vowed to clean up Dodge and campaigned on the promise that no lobbyist would find job security in the White House. The day after his swearing-in, President Obama signed an executive order barring former lobbyists in government positions from overseeing anything related to their past business interests.
Apparently, that presidential executive order comes with an asterisk: no lobbyists in charge — except when they are. Take Deputy Secretary of Defense designate William J. Lynn III, former executive and lobbyist with Raytheon, world’s largest manufacturer of guided missiles, including the Patriot missile. Raytheon received more than ten billion dollars in defense contracts last year. Lynn says he lobbied for “only a handful” — missiles, destroyers, warheads, a radar system, a spy satellite. Some handful. But because both the President and Defense Secretary Robert Gates insist he’s the only man for the job, Lynn’s been given a waiver.
Also please give a big welcome to anti-tobacco lobbyist William Corr, the newly designated number two at Health and Human Services. He insists he’ll stay out of any HHS business that has to do with tobacco, won’t even yell at anyone smoking in the elevator. We’ll see.
According to The Washington Times, nearly two dozen of President Obama’s executive level appointments have worked as registered lobbyists. “Even the toughest rules require reasonable exceptions.” That was the explanation of White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs. True, there’s an argument to be made for bringing in people with expertise and experience in maneuvering the mazelike intricacies of big government. But with so much money at stake, so much power too easily corrupted, the perpetual revolving door remains a big problem.
Ah, sigh the jaded cynics and opportunists who spawn along the shores of the Potomac, the more things stay the same, so what can you do? What you can do is speak up, and, as the late Molly Ivins would say, keep raising hell. Otherwise, that breeze you’ll feel blowing out of Washington will never be the winds of change; just a fetid gust generated by Beltway blusters of hot air and the endless spin of those damned revolving doors.
Michael Winship is senior writer of the weekly public affairs program Bill Moyers Journal, which airs Friday night on PBS.