Financing Obama’s Transition

14 11 2008

With each incoming presidential administration an awkward and tense dance begins to form in the early days of each incoming administration and the galaxy of DC based advocacy and watchdog groups.  Sometimes the groups are just pressuring the candidate turned president-elect to live up to his or her campaign promises other times its more about trying to ensure they have a certain level of access to key decision makers.

Early signs indicate the incoming Obama administration will not be spared from this ritual. President-elect Obama has not even finish phoning all the world leaders on his calling list and Common Cause is out there raising concerns about the prevalence of the volunteer fundraisers staffing the tranisiton team.

According to an article in today’s Washinton Post, “The involvement of so many bundlers has irritated public interest advocates who worry that Obama is building his transition team based on fundraising skills, not qualifications.” Bundler is Washington speak for a person who raises money from other prominent donors usually very wealthy donors who may have power or influence or both.

“It’s especially troubling during a transition, because lots of people are scrambling and trying to position themselves for all different reasons — they want jobs, they want their legislative priorities on the front burner,” a spokesperson for Common Cause, a good government watchdog group, told the WaPo.

Perhaps, this may strike some as unseemly considering Obama’s promise to curb the influence of special interest groups, but this is no different than what a lot of senior people think tanks and advocay groups around the country have to do. Its not unusual for many Senior Fellows or department heads at many influencial of the most influencial organizations to raise a certain amount of money each year to justify your salary and help diversify the institutions donor base to make sure its keep afloat.

Sure Obama is eligible to receive and will take advantage of the $7 million in federal funds for the transition effort, but the whole affair is expected to cost $12 million dollars. That extra five million dollars has to come from somewhere if you are going to pay scores of people to keep the blackberries running and jets in the air in addition to pay a staff of highly trained individuals to work around the clock for the next four months or longer to propose effective ways to undo the damage of the Bush administration starting from day one.

Plus, just think about how angry people would be if taxpayers had to pay another dime that what’s already appropriated. In fact, an argument could be made that Obama has already save the country millions by opting out of public finance months ago.

The underlying concern that there might be a conflict of interest is a valid one, but that argument might be undercut by the lobbying rules the transition team has already implemented. David Corn at Mother Jones has summarized them as follows:

Federal Lobbyists cannot contribute financially to the transition.

Federal lobbyists are prohibited from any lobbying during their work with the transition.

If someone has lobbied in the last 12 months, they are prohibited from working in the fields of policy on which they lobbied.

If someone becomes a lobbyist after working on the transition, they are prohibited from lobbying the Administration for 12 months on matters on which they worked.

A gift ban that is aggressive in reducing the influence of special interests.

This effectively cuts off influence from even a lot of people who may be much more knowledgeable about the inner workings of some of the institutions that the transition team hopes to fix, but for better or for worse, they are indeed far reaching. And in this sense, that one would have to wonder if Obama was actually indifferent to or wanted to encourage the practice of backdoor lobbying, then the rules governing the process would be a lot more lax.

In this situation no one can completely kill any possibility of conflict of interest, but one can sure minimize it considerably.




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