Locked & Loaded | NBC New York

Locked & Loaded

Third times a charm -- or three strikes & your out?

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    Former Wash Gov. Gary Locke (R) is President Barack Obama's third nominee for commerce secretary. He replaces Republican Sen. Judd Gregg who withdrew his name from consideration -- after New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson withdrew his name. (Photo by Win McNamee/Getty Images)

    To be considered for commerce secretary in the Obama administration is to take a position somewhere between a Murphy Brown secretary and a Spinal Tap drummer. Either way, evidence suggests you're not likely to be around long.

    The president has shown a commitment to diversity in his selection of ComSecs -- and been rewarded with diverse reasons for them dropping out:

    Latino-American New Mexico Gov. Bill Richardson neglected to tell the administration that he was under investigation by the federal government over state contracting.

    Caucasian-American New Hampshire Sen. Judd Gregg seemed to forget that, oh yeah, upon further review, he was indeed a conservative Republican and might have difficulty working in a liberal Democrat's administration.

    So, what will be the fate of the latest candidate, former Washington Gov. Gary Locke -- the first-ever Chinese American governor?

    There's no way that he could become a problem, right?

    Ooops! According to Politico, Obama may have to choose between Locke and going back on one of his ethical rules for serving in his administration:

    Locke’s post-gubernatorial efforts to drum up business for an array of companies in the rapidly expanding Chinese market may require steps to reconcile with the administration’s ethics policy.

    Uh-oh.

    The problem is that Locke, a partner in an international law firm’s China division, has advocated for Microsoft, Starbucks, and banking, timber and shipping interests in recent years, raising potential conflicts for him as head of a department charged with promoting U.S. trade around the globe.

    One of Obama’s first acts as president was to sign an executive order barring executive branch officials from working on issues "directly and substantially related" to their former clients or employers for two years.

    Yet if he’s confirmed as commerce secretary, Chinese trade issues – including some with direct impact on the companies he went to bat for – are likely to be high on the agenda for Locke...

    Now, faced with a similar conundrum previously -- with Defense Deputy Secretary William Lynn -- the administration just ignored its own rules and pushed through the former Raytheon lobbyist. Congress voted Lynn in overwhelmingly. The same is likely to be the case for Locke (assuming that nothing else embarrassing arises).

    But the stringent lobbying and ethics rules may be doing more than just creating headaches for the would-be Commerce Secretary. During what nearly everyone says is the worst recession since the Great Depression, the agency that is supposed to be dealing with this mess is critically understaffed. The Treasury secretary is said to be virtually working "by himself."

    Analysts point to a variety of possible causes for the hiring delays, including new ethics rules introduced by Obama himself. The new commander in chief has barred lobbyists from taking jobs where they would be working on issues that they have lobbied on during the last two years. Treasury has also imposed stricter regulations on Wall Street, preventing lobbyists from contacting the Department as it works on distributing the billions in federal funds remaining from the banking bailout program.

    "President Obama has set very high ethical standards and at Treasury you need people who have financial expertise," said [the Brookings Institution's Darrell] West. "That invariably is going to lead to Wall Street because that is where most of those people work," West said.

    It was the height of naivete for the Obama team to think that they could assemble a competent administration that wouldn't have at least several lobbyists or former lobbyists. Competence comes from knowledge and experience -- which are precisely the attributes that lobbyists trade in.

    Gary Locke is as ideal an individual as any president could want at Commerce (a position which is, in essence, being the lobbyist for American products and trade). If something has to be tossed overboard this time, how about ethics rules that were foolishly stringent from the start?

    Robert A. George is a New York writer. He blogs at Ragged Thots.