x Abu Dhabi, UAESaturday 20 January 2018

Lawyers calling the shots in Washington

If the US capital has a permanent ruling class, its princes can often be found in high-powered law firms.

In a 1999 photo, President Clinton shakes hand with his deputy attorney general, Eric Holder. Mr Holder is President-elect Barack Obama's top choice to be the next attorney general.
In a 1999 photo, President Clinton shakes hand with his deputy attorney general, Eric Holder. Mr Holder is President-elect Barack Obama's top choice to be the next attorney general.

Williams & Connolly. Covington & Burling. Alston & Bird. Arnold & Porter. Fulbright & Jaworski. To those outside Washington or not familiar with the workings of America's high-powered law firms, the hybrid names could easily be passed over without a second thought. But if the capital of the United States has a permanent ruling class, its princes can often be found in these and other well-adorned offices along K Street and Connecticut Avenue, in Georgetown and on Capitol Hill. The revolving door between public service and making big money by peddling influence representing corporate and special interests spins at a steady pace.

Anyone preaching change, as Barack Obama, the president-elect, has done, surely realises that the Washington law firms will continue to be pivotal political players long after 2009, just as they have been for decades. The administration of Mr Obama, a Harvard law school graduate like his wife, looks as if it will be no different in this regard than previous ones. Consider the announcements and leaks about high-level positions emanating from the Obama transition team. For attorney general, Eric Holder, a former deputy attorney general under Bill Clinton and partner in Covington & Burling; for White House counsel, Gregory Craig, a partner in Williams & Connolly; for secretary of health and human services, former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, a public policy adviser at the firm Alston & Bird; for chief of staff to Joe Biden, the vice-president-elect, Ron Klain, a former partner at O'Melveny & Myers.

This is just the beginning; expect many well connected lawyers with resumes detailing prior service in a presidential administration to trade in the corner offices with nice views and plush expense accounts for executive branch jobs in the months ahead. Some will do so out of a desire to serve; others to help shape public policy, and more than a few in the hopes of using the experience as a springboard to a better paying job when they return to the private sector.

"[They are part] of that small fraternity of Washington lawyers who run things behind the scenes in the nation's capital. Each political party has its own set of these lawyers and depending on which party is in power, there is a different set of behind-the-scenes figures who run things," said Mark Feldstein, an associate professor at George Washington University's School of Media and Public Affairs. "No doubt the same is true in other societies as well."

With Rahm Emanuel, a former White House aide to Mr Clinton, already at work as Mr Obama's chief of staff and with Hillary Clinton being touted as a possible secretary of state, some "people are getting annoyed about all the Clinton recycling", said JoAnn Goslin, a journalist and longtime Washington resident. Mark Rozell, a professor of public policy at George Mason University in Virginia, raises the issue of whether people are getting what they voted for. "Obama promised change," he said. "Many people who voted for him in the primaries thought it was time to vanquish the Clintons once and for all. I wonder what they think now.

"Certainly there is always a need to have experienced people. But I am always puzzled by the analyses that suggest that the only really qualified people in the US are those who had previous White House or executive branch experience? So many talented legal minds who could serve as attorney general, many distinguished Americans with serious diplomatic service records could be outstanding as secretary of state, so many people who know how to run a big organisation could be a solid chief of staff. I just don't believe that Obama had no choice than to go to Clinton-era folks to get qualified people in important positions."

Prof Feldstein and others point to the failures of the administration of Jimmy Carter, the last Democratic president before Mr Clinton, as the reason Mr Obama seems inclined to staff his administration with Clintonites savvy to the ways of Washington. "Occasionally an outsider president like Jimmy Carter is elected who does not draw talent from this pool of Washington insiders, but then he inevitably runs into trouble because his staff doesn't know how to navigate in this town," Prof Feldstein said.

In the case of Mr Holder, Joe Palazzolo, who is chronicling presidential appointments for the Legal Times newspaper, said of the nation's top law enforcement official: "After the US lawyer firings [which took place in the current administration], it would be almost unfathomable for Obama to pick an attorney general without roots in the justice department, career roots. In another time, a 'generalist' AG, like Janet Reno, was a politically wise choice. But as things are, a fresh face doesn't necessarily inspire confidence so much as anxiety, where the department is concerned. "Holder is DOJ through and through, but I think he'll be able to escape much of the 'same old, same old' criticisms because he's so well liked and because he'll be something entirely different: the first black attorney general.

"If Obama represents change, then Holder is the guy who knows how to pull the levers in the justice department to make that change happen. There's been a lot of talk about this Clinton official or that Clinton official. [I'm certainly guilty of it]. But it's simply the case that the Democrats with experience in a presidential administration have been in exile since 2001, many of them in law firms around here."

Being in a law firm certainly does not prevent old issues from resurfacing once the public spotlight shines again on a potential appointee. Republicans no doubt will grill Mr Holder on his role in signing off on some of the controversial pardons granted during the last days of the Clinton administration. Mr Daschle will have to deal with his law firm's lobbying for health care clients and his service on the board of the Mayo Clinic, a world-renowned health care institution. His wife is a well-known lobbyist on aerospace and military matters, with, you guessed it, a Washington law firm, Baker Donelson.

But as Will Scheltema, a Washington writer, said about the revolving door: "Who you gonna go to get a fast start? You need experienced hands with built-in loyalties." And they tend to be found in legal offices. This is as much a part of the Washington culture as the Lincoln Memorial and the Smithsonian. Change in the back and forth between law firms and the governing class? Dream on. @Email:rpretorius@thenational.ae