Snagging Robert Gibbs could pump up Facebook’s D.C. credentials

Mike Riggs Contributor
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Former White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs could soon join the team at Facebook.com in a senior role, unnamed sources told Dealbook’s Andrew Ross Sorkin on Sunday. We don’t know if or when it will happen, as both parties are playing coy, or for how much. What we do know is that snagging Gibbs would make Facebook’s D.C. team one of the best in the tech industry.

While Obama’s anti-lobbying rule doesn’t prohibit Gibbs from bending his former boss’s ear about privacy policy, anti-trust issues, net neutrality, and bullying, all of which affect Facebook, etiquette certainly does. Few things appear quite as bad as having a former high-ranking official running back and forth between his public-servant brethren and his private sector pay masters.

Practically, however, Gibbs could lobby for Facebook without ever calling it that.

“If you’re not registered to lobby, you can’t be a lobbyist,” Gibbs told Time magazine in 2009. At the time, critics were hitting Obama for nominating Tom Daschle to head HHS. Obama had promised not to hire any lobbyists to work at the top of his administration, and Daschle’s activities on behalf of education groups and health-care interests “smelled and tasted” a lot like lobbying, wrote TIME’s Michael Scherer.

But ultimately, it’s the act of registering–not quacking, waddling, or hocking insurance–that makes one a lobbyist.

According to the Lobbying Act Disclosure guidelines available on the House website, Gibbs would have to spend 20% or more of his work week at Facebook “preparing or planning activities, research and other background work that is intended, at the time of its preparation, for use in contacts and coordination with the lobbying activities of others.” He’d also have to be in semi-regular contact with two or more high-ranking members of the Obama White House or a federal agency.

The language of the Lobbying Disclosure Act is broad and loose enough that if Gibbs did only one or two of the above, he could legitimately skirt the act’s rules. And even if he fit them to a T, he (or Facebook) could also pull a Daschle and say his activities didn’t actually count as lobbying.

That would make Gibbs a lot like the Obama alumna currently working for Facebook. Marne Levine left her position as chief of staff for the White House National Economic Council last year to join Facebook as vice president for global public policy. In her role on the public policy team, Levine works with Public Policy Director Timothy Sparapani (formerly of the ACLU) and Associate Manager for Privacy and Global Public Policy Adam Conner (formerly a communications director for Rep. Louise Slaughter). These men were the only two Facebook employees who officially lobbied on behalf of the company in 2010. Despite working alongside them, Levine is not registered to lobby.

According to Sorkin, Gibbs is said to be considering a leadership role with Facebook’s communications team. That would put him in a different department than the company’s two registered lobbyists, but it would be in keeping with K Street residents’ attempts to call themselves anything but lobbyists, including “communications experts.”

When Gibbs left the Obama Administration earlier this year, he promised he wouldn’t be gone from the president’s side for long. If he took a job with Facebook in the near future, the company would have a guaranteed year of access to the FTC, the FCC, Senate leadership, and the White House, but that would keep Gibbs away from Pres. Obama’s 2012 reelection campaign, which he’s pledged to help.

According to Transparencydata.com, Facebook spent roughly $200,000 on official lobbying in 2009, and nearly $400,000 in 2010.