Who do Tom Daschle, Newt Gingrich and Ron Klein think they’re fooling?
Each member of this trio, all former Members of Congress, is an unlobbyist. That is someone who engages in plenty of behind-the-scenes influencing, represents clients who are trying to sway government action, may even work in a lobbying practice but still is not — or at least claims he shouldn’t be — a registered federal lobbyist.
These strategic advisers or policy counsels, or historians in Gingrich’s case, avoid getting tagged officially with an “L” by tapping high-priced lawyers who are experts on the laws of lobby land.
Daschle, a former Senate Majority Leader, is a senior policy adviser at DLA Piper. Gingrich, a former Speaker and now a presidential candidate, was a consultant who said he provided “historical” advice to clients.
Klein, a bundler for the Obama campaign, is a partner in the lobbying practice at Holland & Knight and recently registered to represent Spirit Airlines, only to blame the filing on a clerical error by his firm; the former Florida lawmaker said he was taking immediate steps to de-register, so he can go back to being an unlobbyist.
The unlobbyists can engage in some limited lobbying activities and still avoid triggering the need to register — because apparently there is nothing worse than being a registered federal lobbyist, especially in an election year.
Just ask President Barack Obama.
With limited exceptions, he has barred federal lobbyists from serving in his administration and from giving money to his re-election campaign or bundling donations for him as Klein does. The Democratic National Committee and the nominating convention, following Obama’s lead, have placed similar restrictions on K Street cash, though state lobbyists and high-level corporate advisers are OK.
Ironically, the unlobbyists represent what the public imagines real lobbyists to be: operating in the shadows outside public disclosure laws for a collection of murky or completely unknown interests. Yet it’s the real lobbyists, the ones who file their quarterly reports disclosing the names of their clients and roughly how much they got paid, who get the bad rap.
Because of that, more real lobbyists have opted to become unlobbyists.
“When the Obama administration came in, we had some associates in the firm, who, some were actually being vetted for administration jobs, got disqualified for minimal lobbying contacts,” explained John Merrigan, who co-chairs DLA Piper’s federal law and policy group. “That taught a lesson. So a number of people said, ‘We’d rather not register’ or ‘We’d rather un-register.’”
In the words of American University professor James Thurber, who teaches a course on lobbying and ethics: “The president promised to change the way Washington works. He hasn’t. It’s just gone underground.” Thurber added that the Obama White House relied on the policy expertise of plenty of unlobbyists, including Daschle, when crafting the health care law.
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