Is it really a rule if you don't have to follow it?
By John D. Turner
29 Jan 2009

Here we are again, with another “most ethical government in the history of the United States”, and what do we get? How about a Treasury Secretary (Timothy Geithner) who can’t seem to pay his taxes? For four years? This despite the fact that the company he works for cut him a check especially to be used to pay his taxes (separate from his normal remuneration), and had him sign a statement pledging to use the money for that purpose! And yet, we are told, “it’s an honest mistake.” And besides, while in normal times this might disqualify him, times are not normal. We need his expertise, his wisdom, and experience. So we can overlook his “minor flaws”.

And chuck our ethics and principles over the side as well, so it seems; although that too seems to be par for the course in government these days. For most of us, the term “House (or Senate) Ethics Committee” ranks right up there with such infamous oxymoron’s as “Jumbo Shrimp”, or “Government Organization” (or for computer folks “Microsoft Works”).

I suppose we could get him to sign a paper stating that he will pay his taxes and be on his best behavior while he is Treasury Secretary. Oh wait. He did that before, didn’t he? I’m sure he will be truthful this time…

Speaking of ethics (and promises), remember when President Obama pledged to limit the influence of lobbyists in his administration? The exact quote during his campaign was that lobbyists “won’t find a job in my White House.” Well, I guess it depends on what the meaning of the word “limit” is.

First he appointed William Lynn III, a lobbyist and senior vice president at Raytheon, a company with billions of dollars in Defense Department contracts to be the deputy Secretary of Defense. In addition to running the day-to-day operations of the Department of Defense, he would also be involved in the DoD budgeting and acquisition process. The reason? Well, he is so highly qualified that simply no one else will do.

And how does Mr. Obama square this with his campaign “pledge”? To quote Tommy Vietor, then President-Elect Obama’s transition spokesman, “because Mr. Lynn came so highly recommended from experts across the political spectrum, the president-elect felt it was critical that he fill this position.” Mr. Vietor went on to say

“We are aware that Mr. Lynn lobbied for Raytheon and are working with Mr. Lynn to craft a role for him that is consistent with the president-elects high standards while balancing the need to fill this critical national security position.”

Now I’m sure Mr. Lynn is a fine man. And I have no doubt he is highly competent. But what happened to that promise that lobbyists “won’t find a job in my White House?” Couldn’t we just nominate someone who won’t have to “craft a role” and “balance the need”? Someone who isn’t a lobbyist for a defense contractor? Surely there must be someone in the country that can fill this slot and wouldn’t clash with Mr. Obama’s “high standards”?

Well, it’s only one. I guess we could make an exception…

Mr. Obama’s pick for deputy secretary of Health and Human Services, Bill Corr, was also a lobbyist as recently as September 2008. If one is an exception, what do we call two?

Of course Mr. Corr was an anti-tobacco lobbyist. If there are good and bad lobbyists, surely an anti-tobacco lobbyist would have to be one of the good guys. Maybe “good” lobbyists don’t count. Mr. Obama didn’t specify, but perhaps we should cut him some slack on this one. After all, we are told by Taylor Lincoln, editor of, “There is a difference between being a lobbyist as a business, where you’re getting rich being a lobbyist, and being a lobbyist for a relatively modest income for an ideological belief.”

So if you are the right kind of lobbyist (and not getting stinkin’ rich off it), well, that’s ok. It’s funny how once we really start violating our “standards” how easy it is to rationalize those decisions. I guess Mr. Obama could have said in his campaign rhetoric “lobbyists, who don’t make a whole lot of money and work for ideological purposes, or who I think are absolutely key to the proper functioning of my administration regardless of who they represent or how much they make are ok, but any other lobbyists won’t find a job in my White House.”

He could have said that, but it wouldn’t have fit well in a 15 second sound bite. And there might have been more than a few of us out here who would have recognized that his statement was semantically null from the beginning.

Third time’s the charm?

Now in line for chief of staff to the Treasury Secretary is Mark Patterson, who was a registered lobbyist for Goldman Sachs until April 11 last year. He has been a lobbyist for the firm since 2005. Before that he worked for Tom Daschle when he was Senate majority leader. So, the man who can’t pay his taxes, and is in charge of the Treasury, will have as his right hand man, a lobbyist for one of the largest investment firms in the country. You know; those companies that are “too big to fail”?

And how much has Goldman Sachs received so far from our back pockets? According to British sources Goldman Sachs received around $12 billion in bailout money from the government. Wikipedia shows that on 28 October, the government spent $10 billion to purchase an equity position in the company. This was done under the former Treasury Secretary, Hank Paulson, a former Chairman and Chief Executive Officer of Goldman Sachs.

It’s true that Goldman Sachs has not been the only beneficiary of our involuntary largess. And it is also true that the amount they received was “small potatoes” compared to the entire $700 billion dollar package. But you know how it goes; “a billion here, a billion there and soon you are talking about real money.”

For most of us who can’t even conceive what a billion dollars would look like, (click here to get an idea of how much physical space that would take up in actual cash), this definition of small boggles the mind. If you wanted it in gold, it would weigh around 39 tons. Now multiply that by 10 for Goldman Sachs small share.

Now I am not saying that these people are dumb. And I am not necessarily calling them crooks. But good grief! Isn’t there someone in the nation with the professional expertise to fix these problems that wasn’t part of the problem, or associated with the problem to begin with?

To make matters worse, one day after taking office, Mr. Obama signed an Executive Order seeking to codify his campaign pledge. Now it looks like all the lobbyist he wants to hire into government service might need a waiver for the executive order he just signed into being.

Since the order was signed, a group called Project on Government Oversight (POGO) has called for the President to withdraw his nomination of William J. Lynn III as Deputy Secretary of Defense, since his executive order leaves Mr. Lynn with little to do at the DoD.

According to Raytheon’s disclosure forms, Mr. Lynn was part of a team that lobbied on a wide range of defense issues, including acquisitions policy, force protection, space and intelligence, command and control, simulation and training, missile defense, sensors and radars, and munitions and artillery. Since he would be required to recuse himself from anything involving these issues, one wonders what is left for him to manage?

Now as we in the military know, pretty much anything can be waivered if necessary. But it just looks a bit peculiar to immediately ask for so many waivers to an executive order that you yourself just signed and on which your signature is barely dry. It kind of makes one wonder what the purpose of the order was in the first place.

Obviously, Mr. Obama doesn’t mind looking peculiar. On Jan 23, the White House announced that the new ethics rules, just signed on the 21st won’t apply to Mr. Lynn. I would assume that they won’t apply to Mr. Corr or Mr. Patterson either. Or for that matter, anyone else that Mr. Obama feels is absolutely necessary to his team.

Perhaps when Mr. Obama said that lobbyists “won’t find a job in my White House,” what he really meant was they won’t find a job that is physically located in the physical White House, rather than in his administration, which is the way such a statement would normally be interpreted. Perhaps it all depends on what you mean by the term “White House.”

Then again perhaps what it means is that much if not all of what Mr. Obama said during his campaign (and since being elected for that matter) was pure rhetoric, and now that he has been elected he will do as he pleases. If that’s the case, then he is no different from any other politician elected to office, and the only “change” he brings, at least in that regard, is a change of name, a change of face, and a change of political party.

What good are “rules” if you don’t follow them?