President Clinton yesterday revoked an executive order he signed on his first day in office in 1993 that barred senior officials of the White House and other agencies from lobbying former colleagues for five years.
Lifting the five-year ban on lobbying means Clinton's top subordinates, those currently in government and those who have left, as well as appointees in the incoming George W. Bush administration, can start lobbying their former agencies after one year from their last day on the job. The one-year ban is contained in a 1978 law that still has force.
A number of current and recently departed Clinton appointees had privately pressed top presidential aides to take the action the White House did yesterday, in part because many of them face bleak job prospects after Bush's inauguration, said sources knowledgeable about the discussions.
"It's a tough job market for exiting Clinton appointees because the GOP controls the administration and both houses of Congress, and some of them were saying, 'What do I do now?' " said one person involved in the discussions. "The one taking the fire was [White House Chief of Staff] John Podesta," who drafted Clinton's revocation.
"By waiting till the last moment of his administration to do this, the president demonstrates he knows it is wrong," said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21, a group advocating tougher campaign finance and ethics rules. "Clinton got the benefit of appearing to be tough on the 'revolving door' while in office, and then in his last days says, 'Never mind.' "
White House officials reject those claims. They echo the view of many Washington lobbyists as well as government employment experts who say the five-year ban was excessive and needed to be removed.
"It's hard to imagine a lot of Clinton administration people would have undue influence with a Bush administration," White House spokesman Jake Siewert said. "They'll be lucky to get their phone calls returned. It will be very much an arms-length relationship."
Siewert also pointed out that a non-partisan group, the Presidential Appointee Initiative, which is affiliated with the Brookings Institution and studies problems in presidential transitions, has raised serious questions about the five-year ban.
"It's generally believed this executive order was much too burdensome and that a five-year ban went much too far," said Paul Light, a Brookings vice president and the panel's senior adviser. "It had more to do with image than with ethics. . . . Revoking it is a terrific thing to do for the next president." He said reverting to the one-year ban would likely make it easier for Bush to recruit top-notch officials.
Light added that other non-partisan groups such as the National Academy of Public Administration and the Council for Excellence in Government have raised some of the same questions about Clinton's five-year lobbying ban. Light's panel counts former government officials from both political parties on its advisory board.
But Light said Clinton would have been on firmer ground by only revoking the executive order into the future, and he suggested it was a mistake to lift the five-year ban for Clinton appointees, as well. "That has an edge of cynicism to it," Light said. "Administrations have to live by the rules they set."
Controversies about how to control influence-peddling go back decades.
In 1978, in the wake of Watergate and campaign fundraising scandals, Congress passed a law laying out criminal penalties if senior presidential appointees lobby their former colleagues before a year has passed. That law was toughened in 1988, widening the categories of government officials that the former appointees were barred from contacting.
During the presidential campaign in 1992 -- with Texas billionaire Ross Perot leading in the polls in part because of his attacks on ex-officials crowding the "revolving door" to become lobbyists -- candidate Bill Clinton volunteered that he would toughen the one-year lobbying ban.
Clinton enshrined the five-year ban in an executive order hours after being sworn in, saying his appointees would "uphold the highest possible ethical standards." The order did not prescribe criminal penalties for violators, but required about 1,000 appointees to pledge to abide by it.
"It was unnecessarily punitive," said Roy Neel, who left as Clinton's deputy White House chief of staff after about a year to become a telecommunications executive. "The rule barred a lot of innocent activity. I couldn't go to briefings on issues related to technology, or perhaps even take a Sunday school class on a tour of the White House. There was to be no contact with your former employer on behalf of any party."
"I thought it was goofy at the time, but nobody could talk Clinton's people out of it," said Stanley Brand, a Washington lawyer who has defended numerous elected officials on ethics charges. "We said this would be an unfair burden, would disadvantage people who had come to serve and wouldn't prevent the evil it was designed to prevent."
Even Wertheimer, a hard-liner on ethics matters, said an argument can be made that the five-year limit is too restrictive. But he said Clinton's latest move "is an act of hypocrisy and cynicism."
White House counsel Beth Nolan said in a statement: "The president believes that the executive order has served its purpose."
Siewert said the five-year ban would have remained in place if Vice President Gore had won the election.
Juleanna Glover Weiss, a spokesman for Bush's transition, declined comment on Clinton's action except to say, "We are reviewing all the changes President Clinton has made."