Just over 50 days remain in the Transition to the Obama Administration, and the President-elect has begun to solidify his Cabinet and key advisors on the White House staff. Obama announced his core economic team during a press conference yesterday, confirming that current Chair of the New York Federal Reserve Tim Geithner would serve as Treasury Secretary. The President-elect has also announced former Treasury Secretary Larry Summers as head of the National Economic Council, and began to outline the scope of a wide-ranging stimulus package that is designed to spur investment in infrastructure, job creation, and renewable technologies. In recent days, speculation has swirled around President-elect Obama’s selections for Secretary of State and Secretary of Commerce, with former opponents in the Democratic primaries (Senator Hillary Clinton and Governor Bill Richardson) leading the field. Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle has also been selected to serve as Secretary of Health and Human Services, although a formal announcement has not yet been made.

To keep pace with current developments, Sonnenschein has developed a Transition and Inaugural Web Center that contains updated rosters of the Transition team, key nominations and appointments, and leading candidates for central roles in the new Administration. With attention beginning to shift to the new policies and personalities of the Obama Presidency, this resource will be frequently updated with the latest changes and transition news.

In addition to the transition announcements and policies that are taking shape in Washington, the planning is well underway for the Inauguration on January 20, 2009. Early estimates have indicated that more than four million Americans will travel to Washington for the historic swearing-in of the 44th President of the United States, with the vast majority of hotels already booked for the entirety of the weekend preceding the inaugural. In this environment, both the Obama Transition Team, as well as the House Committee on Standards on Official Conduct have issued guidance covering gift and ethics rules surrounding the transition and inaugural.

“Pink Sheet” Regarding Inauguration Day

On November 20th, the House Committee on Standards of Official Conduct released enhanced guidance on the scope of permissible sponsorships surrounding inaugural events. The guidance focuses on two central issues: 1) Member receptions held in connection with their swearing in on January 6, 2009 and on Inauguration Day, and 2) Member and staff attendance at events held in connection with the Presidential Inauguration.

As outlined in the guidance, Members are permitted to hold a reception or similar event in connection with their swearing in provided that the event is not campaign or political in nature. Members may use their campaign funds to pay the costs of such a reception, even if the event is held in the Member’s office or another room in the House office buildings. A Member may hold a reception on Inauguration Day for visiting constituents, which also may take place in the Member’s office and may be paid for using campaign funds.

Under the guidance, lobbyists or other private entities are prohibited from paying for any event related to a Member’s swearing in or to an Inauguration Day reception. Such sponsorship would violate the gift ban enacted as part of the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007 (HLOGA).

House gift rules, including the exceptions to those rules, also apply to free attendance by Members at events related to the swearing-in ceremony or Inaugural. Free attendance is permitted at events falling under the “widely-attended event exception,” which requires that the actual event sponsor extend invitations to covered officials. Under the widely-attended event exception, any offer of free attendance must be limited to the Member or staff person and one accompanying individual only, and attendance is connected to official duties. The exception also requires a reasonable expectation that at least 25 persons, not including Members, officers, or employees of Congress, from throughout a given industry or profession will attend the event.

Members may also enjoy free attendance at an event that qualifies as a reception exception, i.e., an event having only limited food that does not constitute a meal. For events organized and sponsored by someone other than a federally-registered lobbyist or an entity that employs a lobbyist, Members may accept virtually any gift, including free attendance at an event, that has a fair market value of under $50. However, the aggregate annual gift limitation of less than $100 from any one source still applies.

The Senate Ethics Committee has not yet released any guidance regarding events related to Inauguration Day.

Transition Ethics Update

To begin the process of implementing the campaign’s focus on ethics in government and limiting lobbyist influence, the Obama team has implemented extensive ethics requirements on those working in the transition and individuals desiring to work in the Administration. These rules set forth the following restrictions on lobbyists’ interaction with the transition, and include:

  1. Federal lobbyists cannot contribute financially to the transition.
  2. Federal lobbyists are prohibited from any lobbying during their work with the transition.
  3. If someone has lobbied within the past year, they are prohibited from working in the fields of policy on which they lobbied.
  4. If someone becomes a lobbyist after working on the transition, they are prohibited from lobbying the Administration for one year on matters on which they worked.
  5. Members of the transition team are prohibited from accepting gifts.  

The Obama transition team has also released a questionnaire to be filled out by prospective employees and appointees of the Administration. This far-reaching questionnaire asks 63 questions covering a wide range of issues from the applicant’s professional background, publications and speeches, affiliations, financial and tax information, legal proceedings, and websites (including any social networking pages such as Facebook or MySpace). Many of the questions cover the applicant’s spouse, other family members, and even adult children. Highlighting the Obama transition team’s goal of transparency and openness, applicants must disclose whether they or their spouse have ever registered as a lobbyist or attempted to influence federal or state legislation or administrative acts. Among the numerous questions asked, applicants must disclose any writings or publications (including website posts or blogs), whether any immediate family member has had an affiliation with Fannie Mae, Freddie Mac, AIG, or any company receiving federal government assistance through programs related to the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act (EESA), and whether any affiliation of the entity could potentially reflect negatively on the applicant or the Administration.

President-elect Obama has moved quickly to act upon his campaign themes of a more transparent Washington, including consideration of new revolving door limitations for Executive Branch appointees and employees. In the coming months, government contracting, Executive Branch ethics rules, and potentially lobbying restrictions could all see changes under the new President.