WASHINGTON // Barack Obama's efforts to cleanse Washington of special interests may seem like refreshing news in this town of influential power brokers and back room deals, but some say his intentions are at best unrealistic and at worst unconstitutional. One need look no further than K Street, a major avenue just blocks from the White House where many of the country's lobbyists work, to find the doubters. Lobbyists, after all, are paid by an array of special interests - from such major corporations as ExxonMobil to groups such as the Girl Scouts of America - to influence congress and they say their trade is an essential, if often misunderstood, function of US democracy.
To be sure, the lobbying world has had its share of blockbuster scandals involving some fantastic examples of corruption. For example, Jack Abramoff, a well-connected "superlobbyist", was caught lavishing elected officials with high-priced gifts in exchange for legislation that favoured his clients. Many "good government" groups and lawmakers believe Mr Obama's policies will put an end to such corruption.
But many lobbyists believe Mr Obama has targeted them unfairly, stoking an already widespread public distrust of their trade. Not only did Mr Obama decide not to accept money from lobbyists as a candidate, he frequently demonised them on the campaign trail as an "army" that has "hijacked" Washington. After he won the election, Mr Obama barred lobbyists from his transition team because, he said, they "kill good ideas and good plans with secret meetings and campaign cheques".
As president he has effectively barred most lobbyists from his administration, signing an executive order that prohibits lobbyists from working for a government agency they have lobbied within the past two years. The order likewise prohibits his staff from entering the lobbying world for the duration of his presidency. "We've gotten used to being the punching bag but the general consensus is that this administration is going a little too far," said David Wenhold, president of the American League of Lobbyists, who, like many of his colleagues, is quick to point out that the right to "petition the government for a redress of grievances" is guaranteed by the first amendment to the US constitution. "It's beyond hypocritical to me; it's offensive and I know that carries over with a lot of firms."
Michael Fulton, the chief lobbyist for Golin Harris International, a public relations firm based in Chicago, is one of many who questions Mr Obama's hiring policy, which he says prevents some of the most qualified candidates from joining the executive branch. "This is not how one in the business world would do things it's not common sense," said Mr Fulton, a longtime Capitol Hill staffer who went through the so-called "revolving door" to the lobbying world in 1988. "I would think the [president] would want to have the smartest, best people."
So far, even Mr Obama has had some trouble following his own rules. About a dozen lobbyists have been granted exceptions to work top jobs in his administration, an apparent double standard that has drawn criticism from K Street and government watchdogs alike. To name a few: Mr Obama's attorney general, Eric Holder, was a registered lobbyist until 2004; his nominee for deputy health and human services secretary, William Corr, was registered to lobby until last year for the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids; his deputy defence secretary, William Lynn, lobbied on behalf of Raytheon, a major defence contractor.
Administration officials have noted that only a tiny fraction of the 8,000 jobs they plan to fill will be offered to lobbyists. "Even the toughest rules require reasonable exceptions," said Robert Gibbs, the president's press secretary. Mr Obama's new Treasury secretary, Timothy Geithner - who himself hired a former lobbyist as his chief of staff - took aim at K Street on his first day in office, issuing new rules to "combat the lobbyist influence" on hundreds of billions of dollars in government bailout money. The safeguards include measures that restrict the Treasury's contact with lobbyists regarding the funds. But some have suggested such provisions may be unconstitutional.
"To me that is a very slippery slope, when you start telling people they can't participate in their government," said Mr Wenhold, who took exception to the word "combat" in the treasury department's press release. "I didn't know we were at war with the first amendment." Other lobbyists have criticised Mr Obama's new zero-tolerance policy on executive branch employees accepting gifts, which is even stricter than one passed for congressional lawmakers last year.
Larry Bory, who lobbies on behalf of the Design Professionals Coalition, an organisation of the country's largest engineering firms, said the "puritanical" rules will prevent administration officials from meeting with lobbyists over meals, even those considered "widely attended events", or gatherings attended by at least 25 people who do not work on Capitol Hill. But not all lobbyists criticised Mr Obama's policies. Some welcome the new transparency and say they are unfazed by the regulations. Tony Podesta, one of Washington's most powerful lobbyists and a major Democratic fundraiser, said he was "thrilled" that Mr Obama won the election, despite what he admits has been some tough anti-lobbyist rhetoric.
"To be a lobbyist you need to have thick skin," said Mr Podesta, whose brother, John, co-chaired Mr Obama's transition and served as the chief of staff to Bill Clinton. "I ignore the rhetoric and keep doing my job." Ethics-in-government groups have heaped praise on Mr Obama for what they see as a long overdue push to rein in powerful corporate interests. "He's actively trying to break that corrupting nexus between lobbyists, money and Washington," said Craig Holman, a legislative representative for Public Citizen, a watchdog group.