Two months after President Barack Obama criticized the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, White House ethics cop Norman Eisen describes efforts to blunt that ruling as a top priority.
In his State of the Union speech, Obama also called for more restrictions on “the outsized influence of lobbyists.” Besides legislation to reinstate certain restrictions on corporate campaign efforts undone by Citizens United, he mentioned stepped-up disclosure requirements and limits on lobbyists’ political contributions. Eisen, special counsel to the president for ethics and government reform and a former partner at Zuckerman Spaeder in Washington, is the administration’s point man on anti-lobbying measures.
In an interview last week with National Law Journal reporter Carrie Levine, which has been edited for length and clarity, Eisen spoke about the administration’s next moves.
NLJ: What is the White House doing to move forward on the lobbying regulations that the president referenced in the State of the Union?
Eisen: First and foremost is to deal with the Citizens United situation. That’s a top priority. Beyond that, if there’s any lesson that we all take away from this incredibly successful and historic first year, it’s that when the president establishes an objective, he is very concentrated on achieving that objective and will continue, once we move past Citizens United, to work for his comprehensive reform vision.
NLJ: And on the other proposals, the lobbying disclosure proposals, do you expect something this year?
Eisen: The focus now is on getting the top priority item, Citizens United, done. It is important in government to stay concentrated, and right now everybody’s very focused on dealing with the Citizens United case and having a strong response, and I think you’re going to see that in short order.
NLJ: Reform groups have praised the administration’s efforts to limit special interests, but some have also said the regulations don’t go far enough. How effective have the rules been, and what can be done to make them more effective?
Eisen: We do think that they have been effective. The question remains: “What do you do moving forward?” And that’s why the president laid out his whole agenda for what permanent long-term reform looks like: Respond to Citizens United, limit contributions and bundling by lobbyists, take the special interest money out of politics, toughen the lobbyist disclosure rules, full disclosure with respect to earmarks. Each of those builds on the initiatives that we were able to accomplish through executive order and otherwise in the first year, and seeks to establish them permanently in legislation.
NLJ: Is the president going to build on the executive order he issued his first day in office with more executive orders as he waits for legislation to move in Congress?
Eisen: While not foreclosing any options, I think the vision that the president articulated in the State of the Union was one of passing legislation to really make these reforms enduring.
NLJ: We recently did our annual look at the 2009 revenues of the various lobby shops and found that lobbyists with strong ties to the administration and the Democratic Party had astounding years. What does that say about the effectiveness of the regulations?
Eisen: We feel strongly — and others agree — that the rules have made a difference in how the executive branch functions. There is, for example, an enormous amount of transparency in terms of the White House visitor records. We’re at over 150,000 records posted in terms of the amount of visibility that people have into who comes and goes from the White House. I can tell you our stimulus lobbying rules made a tremendous difference in how lobbying for stimulus funds took place.
I have to tell you subjectively that, in the day-to-day conversations that I have with the ethics officers and general counsels and with other senior administration officials, there is a great willingness to remain focused on the public interest and to do the right thing that is sometimes frustrating to the special interests. So notwithstanding the revenue figures, we see every day in the executive branch that these rules are making a tremendous difference.
NLJ: As nonpolitical appointees, lobbyists have taken on prominent positions with executive agencies despite the president’s regulations.
Eisen: There’s a set of rules that apply to political appointees. To my knowledge, those rules have been strictly adhered to. The lobbying waivers were less than one-tenth of 1% out of over 3,000 appointees so we’ve been very, very tough on really sticking by the rules.
There are limits to what you can do by executive order. That’s part of the reason why the president has asked Congress to work with him on building a lasting legislative solution. My view would be that we’ve established rules, people are sticking to them, you cannot cover every corner of government.