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Clinton has been unclear on curbing lobbyist influence

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Barack Obama, a full year before he was elected president, said no lobbyists would be hired in his administration. Hillary Clinton hasn’t been as clear.Andrew Harnik

WASHINGTON — Barack Obama, a full year before he was elected president, spelled out a governing philosophy designed to ward off special interests: No lobbyists would be hired in his administration. Full stop.

Hillary Clinton hasn't been as clear. She has yet to spell out a plan to curb corporate influence and conflicts of interest in her White House should she win — leaving the billion-dollar lobbying industry closely watching for signs of change to Washington's revolving door.

For Clinton, this is no small question. She has captured the overwhelming majority of industry campaign contributions compared with her opponent, Republican Donald Trump, who has been virtually shunned by his party's traditional business base. Clinton's haul includes $60 million from Wall Street, her largest source of contributions, and $28 million more from lawyers and lobbyists.

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"Is she going to feel like she owes them? I think there will be some of that," predicted former Senate majority leader Trent Lott, a Republican who is now a lobbyist with the firm Squire Patton Boggs.

Trump, in advance of Wednesday's third and final presidential debate, put pressure on Clinton to respond by releasing his own plan Monday to slow the spin of Washington's revolving doors. He calls for a five-year "cooling off" period before former members of the executive branch can become lobbyists and lobby agencies where they served.

Conspicuously, Trump does not address whether he himself would permit lobbyists to serve in his administration.

Trump has tried to make Clinton Foundation contributions and Clinton's long record in Washington her Achilles' heel on Twitter and in the debates, calling her "corrupt'' and "crooked'' and saying he wants to put her in jail. On Tuesday he tweeted another round of his unsubstantiated claims that the election will be "rigged,'' with the hashtag #draintheswamp, an allusion to cleaning up Washington corruption.

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The Clinton campaign declined to comment for the record. The campaign hasn't hired lobbyists to work on any of its policy committees and none of the members of its transition team come from the ranks of the lobbying world, according to a Clinton campaign aide.

Clinton has sent mixed signals when it comes to matters of business influence on her potential administration.

She promised during a primary debate to choose appointees who would "put the interests of consumers first.'' But recently leaked text of her private, paid speeches before Wall Street bankers reveal that she shaded questions of business regulation differently two years earlier, assuring executives that "the people that know the industry better than anybody are the people who work in the industry."

Despite the mixed record, some watchdogs in Washington said they are encouraged by early signals from Clinton.

She is supporting legislation penned by Democratic Senator Tammy Baldwin of Wisconsin aimed at slowing the revolving door between the financial services industry and government.

The legislation, which Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren has also championed, would expand a ban on lobbying former colleagues to two years from one year, prohibit companies giving bonuses to employees who land government jobs, and compel government employees to recuse themselves from matters that would affect their former employers.

Of course, in today's Washington, such a bill is highly unlikely to pass Congress, which means leadership will have to come from the White House.

Jeff Hauser, executive director of the reform group Revolving Door Project, has circulated to the Clinton campaign a draft executive order that uses Obama's rule as a building block and essentially expands the Baldwin bill, which is limited to banking sectors, to all government appointees.

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The idea jettisons a total ban on lobbyists, which some on the left dislike because it excludes some of their own activists and reformers from top posts.

Hauser felt encouraged by the Clinton campaign's interest in his idea when he briefed them on it. "I do not think I was blown off," he said.

Others in Clinton's orbit have pushed for an even tougher stance.

Neera Tanden, head of the Center for American Progress and an informal Clinton adviser, wrote to the campaign in February (in a hacked e-mail released by WikiLeaks) under the subject "Corruption agenda.''

"No one from Wall Street will serve in her admin,'' is Tanden's first bullet point. Among her suggestions: a mandate that anyone who changes the law at the request of donors go to jail.

As Clinton ramped up her presidential run circa 2013 she made the kinds of comments that sound to the liberal wing like fingernails on a chalkboard.

"There's nothing magic about regulations, too much is bad, too little is bad," Clinton said in a paid speech to Goldman Sachs on Oct. 24, 2013, according to a transcript published by WikiLeaks.

"How do you get to the golden key, how do we figure out what works? And the people that know the industry better than anybody are the people who work in the industry," Clinton said.

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Three days later, when Clinton gave another paid speech at Goldman's behest, she empathized with the financial executives who take a hit to their pocketbooks when they cycle into Washington jobs.

"You know, the divestment of assets, the stripping of all kinds of positions, the sale of stocks. It just becomes very onerous and unnecessary," Clinton said.

Liberals note Clinton hasn't made similar comments since her bruising primary and don't believe she would want to act on those older views.

But a spin through the trove of e-mails from Clinton campaign chairman John Podesta's hacked account, published by Wikileaks, shows an active debate among Clinton's top campaign staff and consultants about how far to go on slowing that revolving door.

Campaign aide Jake Sullivan expressed concern in August 2015 that Clinton was leaning too far toward the reformer side of the equation. As the Clinton team discussed a draft of an op-ed cowritten by Clinton and Baldwin that outlined their joint support for curbing special interest influence, Sullivan wrote: "I am worried that the thrust of this op-ed is that if you work in the private sector and come into government, you are an inherently suspicious character."

The piece, published in the Huffington Post, made some leaders of the liberal wing happy.

" 'Personnel is policy,' " wrote Clinton and Baldwin, a nod to one of Warren mantras. "We need to make sure those who do the people's work in Washington are actually doing it — not worrying about former or future bosses at the public's expense."

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Clinton says in the article that she would "crack down on conflicts of interest in government.''

Clinton's team also exhibited some hand-wringing about whether to take political donations from lobbyists who work on behalf of foreign governments. Campaign manager Robby Mook, in April 2015, wrote that Clinton's campaign general counsel, Marc Elias of Perkins Coie, had made a "convincing case" that the Obama-era restrictions on lobbyists "don't really get you anything."

Mook — in a discussion about whether to take money from lobbyists who work on behalf of foreign governments — added: "In a complete U-turn, I'm ok just taking the money and dealing with any attacks. Are you guys ok with that?"

Mook is right on one count: That Obama rule is frequently mocked — in part because it is not always followed. But others defend it:

"I think his ethics policies have worked pretty well," said Lisa Gilbert, director of Congress Watch at the watchdog group Public Citizen. "Obama has had one of the most scandal-free administrations we've ever seen."


Annie Linskey can be reached at annie.linskey@globe.com. Follow her on Twitter @annielinskey.