Potential Commerce Secretaries Have Lobbying, Campaign Finance Ties To Administration

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The Obama administration is considering two former corporate CEOs–Google’s Eric Schmidt* and Pfizer’s Jeff Kindler–to fill the soon-to-be empty cabinet post of Commerce Secretary, according to Bloomberg. Both have connections to the Obama administration closely that involve both lobbying and campaign contributions.

It’s arguable that no company was as close to the Obama administration in its first two years as Google was under the direction of CEO Eric Schmidt. Google was the third highest generator of campaign contributions to Barack Obama’s 2008 election campaign among corporations—trailing only Goldman Sachs and Microsoft—with $803,436 from employees and the company’s political action committee. Schmidt donated $25,000 to the Obama Inaugural Committee.

Schmidt was an informal advisor to Obama during the 2008 campaign and later to the transition team. In 2009 Schmidt was named to the President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology.

In his role as an informal advisor Schmidt advocated for increased spending on renewable energy programs, particularly in any stimulus legislation. According to the New York Times, “[Google] … has a stake in the renewable energy market. Last year Google Energy announced plans to buy 114 megawatts of wind energy from an Iowa wind farm and sell it to the grid. The move aimed to stimulate demand for renewable energy, company executives said.”

Google has also dramatically increased its lobbying over the past ten years from nothing to a shade over $5 million in 2010, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. They employ an array of top flight lobbying firms including the closest lobbying firm to the administration, The Podesta Group, and the renewable energy heavy McBee Strategies. Schmidt was previously registered as a lobbyist from 1998-2000, when he headed Novell, Inc.

Kindler played an instrumental role in the passage of the keystone of the Obama first term, health care reform. As CEO of Pfizer, the nation’s largest pharmaceutical company, Kindler, along with PhRMA chief Billy Tauzin, directed the industry into supporting health care reform, so long as they were protected from long-time Democratic policy priorities targeting the industry.

In a controversial move that would define the health care reform debate the administration met repeatedly with Kindler, Tauzin, and other industry representatives to craft a deal to earn the industry’s support. Ultimately, the administration, working with Sen. Max Baucus, agreed to block certain Democratic priorities in exchange for the pharmaceutical industry’s agreement to closing the Medicare prescription drug benefit “donut hole,” a hole in the program where benefits stop, and to running millions of dollars of ads in support of the bill.

In the immediate term this deal bolstered Kindler’s profile as he earned a massive bonus, but Pfizer’s poor performance over the same period eventually led to Kindler’s ouster in December 2010.

(The full pharma deal story can be read here.)

In the recently announced executive branch reorganization the administration singled out the Commerce Department above all other departments for needed changes. Commerce has long been seen as a hodge-podge of government agencies without a home in need of either reorganization or disbursement to other departments. It is questionable whether either of these successful executives would want to preside over the dissolution of an entire agency or whether the administration would want to go through potentially difficult confirmation hearings for a position of limited authority and questionable future.

*Schmidt is still CEO of Google, but announced earlier this year that he would step down from that position on April 4, 2011.

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