Under President Obama‘s pledge to exclude registered lobbyists from the government payroll, two top contenders for an important food-safety post at the Agriculture Department will need waivers to win the job since both are lobbyists who sought to influence USDA officials.
Barbara J. Masters, a longtime USDA employee and now a senior policy adviser at a Washington law firm, and Caroline Smith DeWaal, food-safety director at the Center for Science in the Public Interest, are the leading candidates to head the department’s Food Safety Inspection Service (FSIS), whose mission is to ensure that the nation’s supply of meat, poultry and egg products is safe.
Mr. Obama has said that executive agency appointees cannot work in any area in which they had been a registered lobbyist within one year of the appointment.
Ms. Masters and Ms. Smith DeWaal would have a problem operating under such a rule because both lobbied directly on food-safety matters. It is unclear how either of the women, if appointed, could remove herself from discussions that lie at the very heart of the position’s list of duties, which is to oversee USDA inspectors at slaughter, food-processing and import sites.
The only answer, experts say, is a very broad waiver of the new restriction - in effect, a suspension of the rule if either is chosen for the job.
“Depending on how the rule is applied, both women would have to receive waivers from the administration to be appointed to the position,” said Craig Holman, legislative director for Public Citizen, a nonpartisan watchdog group that tracks political fundraising and its influence on government policy.
Obama spokesman Tommy Vietor declined comment, saying it was “hypothetical at this point” and that a statement would be issued once a formal nomination is made.
He has told reporters that the president has offered the toughest ethics and lobbying reform policy in history and “now he’s acting on it to reduce the influence of lobbyists in Washington.”
But a person briefed about the appointment confirmed that the two women were top contenders for the job. Three Washington law firms involved in litigation over food-safety issues and food-borne illnesses also have discussed the two potential appointees on their Web sites.
Both Ms. Masters and Ms. Smith DeWaal are well-known in the food-safety field.
Ms. Masters worked at FSIS for 17 years and headed the agency from 2004 to 2007. Now a senior policy adviser at Olsson Frank Weeda PC, she is credited with establishing a solid infrastructure of science-based policies and data analysis that have helped reduce food-borne illness and product recalls.
She lobbied the House and Senate “regarding food-related legislation” as a lawyer at Olsson Frank Weeda, which is known as the largest “Big Ag” lobbying firm in Washington. The firm reported more than $5.4 million in income from lobbying contracts over the past two years.
During a telephone interview, Ms. Masters said she was “not in a position to comment” on whether her recent lobbying activities should disqualify her from the job or whether the two-year rule put those best suited for a particular appointment at a disadvantage.
“I am very supportive of the administration and look forward to whoever they do select for that job, whether it’s myself or someone else,” she said. “Obviously, I will be happy to work for or with the administration in any capacity in food safety.”
Ms. Smith DeWaal, who did not respond to calls for comment, has been at the Center for Science in the Public Interest since 1994. She directs the food-safety program and monitors nutrition, food safety, health and other issues for the Washington-based group.
To that end, Ms. Smith Dewaal lobbied the White House, Congress, the USDA, the Food and Drug Administration, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the departments of Interior, Treasury, Health and Human Services, and Justice on matters concerning food safety.
The center spent $610,000 in the past two years, according to Senate records, to lobby the House and Senate.
Mr. Obama said during the presidential campaign that lobbyists “won’t find a job in my White House,” although several have, according to an analysis by Politico.com.
Waivers have already been issued to several former lobbyists, including Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack; Deputy Defense Secretary William Lynn; Mark Patterson, chief of staff to Treasury Secretary Timothy F. Geithner; and Cecilia Munoz, White House director of intergovernmental affairs.