Environment & Energy Report

Trump Stocks His Cabinet Increasingly With Business Lobbyists

Dec. 2, 2019, 9:00 AM

In his previous life as a lobbyist, Dan Brouillette represented clients including Ford Motor Co. and electric utilities with business before the U.S. Energy Department. Now he’s on the verge of running the very agency he once sought to influence.

Brouillette, who’s expected to be confirmed Monday as Energy Secretary, is the latest example of how K Street has deepened its presence in the upper echelon of the Trump administration. Departing cabinet officials are being replaced by former lobbyists who are now in a position to oversee industries they once represented.

Dan Brouillette
Photographer: Al Drago/Bloomberg

“There is the perception that lobbyists -- who are often paid a lot of money to influence government to act a certain way -- will continue to pursue that agenda while in government and give privileged access to clients who used to pay their salary,” said Delaney Marsco, legal counsel on ethics for the nonpartisan watchdog group Campaign Legal Center. “The public’s interests should always be the number one priority.”

Trump’s original cabinet had two former lobbyists: U.S. Trade Representative Robert E. Lighthizer, who represented the steel industry, and former Director of National Intelligence Dan Coats, whose former firm previously had clients including Google Inc. and Bank of America Corp.

After Brouillette’s confirmation, the administration will have seven former registered lobbyists in a cabinet of 23 leaders of agencies or White House offices, or 30%, according to the Center for Responsive Politics and a review of lobbying disclosure forms.

Trump vowed during his 2016 campaign to “drain the swamp” in Washington, promising to expand the definition of lobbyist to include consultants and advisers and order appointees to refrain from lobbying the agencies where they worked for five years. But he’s come under criticism for falling short by Democrats vying to replace him the White House, who have campaigned on reforming the lobbying industry if elected.

“How sick is Trump’s revolving door?” Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders wrote in a May Facebook post, criticizing Trump for putting a former coal lobbyist, Andrew Wheeler, in charge of regulating air pollution at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Trump isn’t the only U.S. president to have chosen lobbyists to serve as cabinet members. Former President Barack Obama had four, while his predecessor George W. Bush had two lobbyists-turned-agency-chiefs, according to the non-profit center. But an executive order issued by Obama during his first full day in office limited former lobbyists -- with some exceptions -- from going into the executive agencies that they used to try to influence, said Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Center for Economic and Policy Research’s Revolving Door Project.

An executive order issued shortly after Trump took office weakened those rules, allowing lobbyists into agencies they previously had business before as long as they recused themselves from “particular matters” they had previously lobbied on, Hauser said, adding enforcement of that rule has been questionable.

“Trump’s ethics pledge does not restrict most of the ways a former lobbyist could benefit their past and potentially future clients,” Hauser said.

Not everyone sees promoting lobbyists to lead federal agencies as detrimental for oversight of industries. For one thing, lobbyists are often familiar with the inner-workings of an agency and the policies they craft, said Stephen Brown, a former lobbyist who now consults for oil refiners, utilities and others as part of RBJ Strategies.

“I think that a lot of these guys stepping up from No. 2 to No. 1 in some respects can be an upgrade in terms of the efficacy of the agency,” Brown said. “They are not prone to wild fits of idealism. They know how to get things moved from point A to point B to point C in that agency because they have lobbied it before.”

The White House credited the former lobbyists in its cabinet with helping to achieve Trump’s goals.

“President Trump has assembled an incredible team at the White House and across the federal government who -- in spite of 93% negative news coverage -- have accomplished undeniable successes, including record job gains, economic growth, fair and reciprocal trade, criminal justice reform, energy independence, combating the opioid epidemic, lowering prescription drug prices, and restoring the Nation’s standing in the world,” said spokesman Judd Deere.

To others, however, the situation raises concerns about conflicts of interest and questions about whose interests those officials are serving, especially since many return to the private sector once they leave office.

“It’s problematic because lobbyists work first to serve paying clients,” said Craig Holman, a lobbying expert at the Washington-based watchdog group Public Citizen. “They may be working more to serve their paying clients than the public interest.”

Some such as Defense Secretary Mark Esper, Lighthizer, and Chad Wolf, the Department of Homeland Security’s acting secretary, previously lobbied for companies with business before the agencies they now run.

Esper was Raytheon Co.’s vice president for government relations before becoming a top defense official for Trump. Wolf lobbied for clients including baggage inspection technology maker Analogic Corp., defense contractor Boeing Co. and uniform maker Cintas Corp. Lighthizer was criticized by a watchdog group, American Oversight, last year for providing access to lobbyists from his former firm which lobbied for the steel industry while the Trump administration was rolling out tariffs on imported steel.

Other cabinet members, such as Interior Secretary David Bernhardt, who previously lobbied for oil and mining interests, and EPA Administrator Wheeler, whose client lists included coal producer Murray Energy Corp., have drawn ethics complaints related to their prior work.

Bernhardt, who was the Interior Department’s No. 2 official before being promoted to replace Trump’s first Secretary Ryan Zinke, has been dogged by questions about potential ethical conflicts while steering policy decisions at the agency. Interior oversees drilling, grazing and other activities on about 500 million acres of public lands.

The agency’s inspector general in April opened an investigation into whether Bernhardt while at the department helped his former client, California Central Valley’s Westlands Water District, which is the nation’s largest agricultural water supplier.

The Interior Department said Bernhardt “scrupulously” follows ethics guidance he sought before joining the agency “and has regular communications with ethics professionals to ensure he is acting in compliance with their guidance and views.”

“Secretary Bernhardt has done more than any other Interior Secretary to improve the Department’s ethics program and operations,” the agency said.

Wheeler, a former energy lobbyist and Republican Senate aide who replaced Scott Pruitt as EPA administrator earlier this year has drawn ethics complaints as well.

Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington lodged two complaints alleging Wheeler violated his ethics agreement barring him from participating in matters involving former clients and issues in which he previously lobbied on.

In an email, the EPA dismissed the complaint as “old news filed by a left-wing special interest group not a legitimate government ethics organization.”

“CREW’s accusations are baseless and just flat out false,” spokeswoman Molly Block said. “Administrator Wheeler works closely with career EPA ethics officials and abides by all ethics requirements under the Trump Ethics pledge and those required by the EPA and Federal Government.”

To contact the reporter on this story:
Ari Natter in Washington at anatter5@bloomberg.net

To contact the editors responsible for this story:
Jon Morgan at jmorgan97@bloomberg.net

© 2019 Bloomberg L.P. All rights reserved. Used with permission.

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