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Trump’s Cabinet has had more ex-lobbyists than Obama or Bush

WASHINGTON (AP) — In less than three years, President Donald Trump has named more former lobbyists to Cabinet-level posts than his most recent predecessors did in eight, putting a substantial amount of oversight in the hands of people with ties to the industries they’re regulating.

The Cabinet choices are another sign that Trump’s populist pledge to “drain the swamp” is a catchy campaign slogan but not a serious attempt to change the way Washington works. Instead of staring down “the unholy alliance of lobbyists and donors and special interests” as Trump recently declared, the influence industry has flourished during his administration.

The amount spent in 2019 on lobbying the U.S. government is on pace to match or exceed last year’s total of $3.4 billion, the most since 2010, according to the political money website Open Secrets. Trump also has pulled in hefty contributions from industries with business before his administration, and his hotel near the White House has been a magnet for lobbyists and foreign interests since he was elected.

“An administration staffed by former industry lobbyists will almost certainly favor industry over the general public, because that’s the outlook they’re bringing to the job,” said Lee Drutman, a senior fellow in the political reform program at the think tank New America and author of the book “The Business of America is Lobbying.”

Former lobbyists run the Defense and Interior departments, Environmental Protection Agency and office of the U.S. Trade Representative. The acting Labor secretary, Pat Pizzella, is an ex-lobbyist and Trump’s pick to run the department, Eugene Scalia, also is an ex-lobbyist. Scalia’s confirmation hearing before a GOP-controlled Senate committee is scheduled for Thursday and Democrats are expected to grill him on his long record of opposing federal regulations.

A seventh ex-lobbyist, Dan Coats, resigned as Trump’s intelligence chief in August.

President Barack Obama had five former lobbyists in his Cabinet during two terms in office and President George W. Bush had three, also during eight years in the White House, according to lobbying and foreign agent disclosure records. The review was limited to the Trump, Obama and Bush administrations because prior to 1995 there was no central database of federal lobbying registrations and the law was hazy about who was supposed to register.

Shortly after taking office, Trump signed an executive order that revoked an Obama directive prohibiting lobbyists from being appointed to a post at a federal agency they’d lobbied within the last two years. While this “cooling off” period was cast aside, Trump’s order continued to bar for two years lobbyists-turned-government-employees from participating in particular matters that they’d lobbied on during the two preceding years.

“Without the cooling off period, these Cabinet heads appear to be serving their former employers’ and clients’ special interests,” said Virginia Canter, chief ethics counsel of the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.

The White House did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Trump’s Cabinet includes the heads of the 15 executive departments and seven other senior-level posts, such as EPA administrator and director of national intelligence. Obama’s Cabinet had the same number of members and Bush’s Cabinet had two fewer.

Scalia, the Labor Department nominee, has spent much of his career as a partner in the Washington office of the Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher firm, where he ran up a string of victories in court cases on behalf of business interests challenging labor and financial regulations. Scalia, the son of the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia, served for a year as the Labor Department’s top lawyer during the George W. Bush administration.

His financial disclosure report lists 49 clients who paid him $5,000 or more for legal services, including e-cigarette giant Juul Labs, Facebook, Walmart and Bank of America. Disclosure records show Scalia was registered in 2010 and 2011 to lobby for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

Pizzella has been the acting secretary since Alexander Acosta resigned the post in July amid renewed criticism of how, as a federal prosecutor, he handled a 2008 secret plea deal with wealthy financier Jeffrey Epstein.

In the late 1990s and early 2000s, Pizzella lobbied for clients that ranged from Microsoft Corp. to the Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians. He also worked on several accounts with disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff, although Pizzella was never accused of any misconduct or wrongdoing.

Obama chose Pizzella for a GOP seat on the Federal Labor Relations Authority and he was an assistant Labor secretary during the George W. Bush administration.

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