When President Obama announced his intention to nominate Richard Verma to serve as assistant secretary of state for legislative affairs -- "H" -- last week among a group of other nominees, the accompanying biography noted that Verma had served as a partner at Steptoe & Johnson, an international law firm, and had been the national security advisor to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-NV). It did not note that in 2008 alone, Verma had earned almost $700,000 in fees lobbying for clients including the U.S.-India Business Council, the National Association of Convenience Stores, the Society of Independent Gas Marketers in America, and the Cigna Corporation, according to lobbying records.
(National Journal previously noted the nominee's lobbying history).
The fact that a former top Hill aide becomes a lobbyist and seeks a return to government is not unusual. What is remarkable is that the Obama administration has made a big fuss about not hiring lobbyists except in very rare cases (such as that of deputy defense secretary William Lynn), and has undertaken such vigorous and extensive vetting of potential appointees, that some people have asked to withdraw from the excruciating process. The Verma appointment therefore highlights seeming contradictions in the policy. Verma's powerful Hill patrons, among them his former boss Senator Reid, may have earned him a de facto exemption from the usual rules.
Verma, who earlier in his career was an aide to Rep. John Murtha (D-PA) and an international fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations, would reportedly be the highest-ranking Indian American at the State Department if he is confirmed. He did not immediately respond to a message left for him at Steptoe & Johnson. A White House spokesman said he would get back to me.
An administration official who asked for anonymity insisted that Verma did not need a waiver exempting him from the Obama administration's appointments policy because he never did any lobbying regarding the State Department.
The appointment has raised eyebrows among Hill staff, who nonetheless noted that opposition on the Hill towards Verma was likely to be muted. "Nobody at the Senate will raise hackles here," said one Senate Democratic foreign-policy staffer. "Deference and courtesy is given not just to former members, but also former staffers, especially when they once worked for the current majority leader."
But, he added, "Verma's nomination was unexpected because many of us assumed that Hillary would place one of her long-time political lieutenants in this position -- Tamera Luzzatto, Kris Balderston, or Andrew Shapiro all would have made sense. So picking someone from Harry Reid's circle was a surprise."
"They could have picked a range of other equally or more qualified individuals who would not present this lobbying dilemma," the staffer continued. "It defies common sense to argue that Verma was so uniquely qualified for this position that he deserved a rare waiver to proceed. Why can the administration grant a waiver for a leg affairs job, but refuse to give waivers to people like Tom Malinowski?" whose status as a lobbyist for Human Rights Watch is thought to have kept him out of government. "Give me a break."
The case certainly seems to reinforce the perception among many in Washington that in Obamaland, there are rules for some, and different rules for others.
UPDATE: A friend of Verma close to the administration writes in response that Verma "never lobbied the Hill for the convenience stores or the gasoline marketers." He is listed on the lobbying disclosure forms only because he is part of Steptoe's government relations practice, he says. "While CIGNA is a client, he never lobbied on any issue for them."
He further said the amount lobbying records indicate Verma brought in in lobbying fees to the firm in 2008 has no connection to Verma's salary and says he did not earn nearly that much. Verma went through the same extensive vetting as everyone else, "and did not need the waiver, despite what the last paragraph suggests." The friend said Verma spent only probably about 15 hours lobbying the Hill last year, some of that on behalf of the Humane Society.
"Rich is an incredible guy with an impressive background that doesn't come across: he served in the Air Force, he was overseas for NDI, chaired the WMD Commission, his time on Defense Dept transition, his 300+ hours of pro bono work, etc."
John Hudson reports on national security and foreign policy from the Pentagon to Foggy Bottom, the White House to Embassy Row, for The Cable.