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Street Talk: Unlobbyists Give Real Lobbyists a Bad Name

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo
Former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle is just one of the former Members who avoid crossing the line at which they have to register as federal lobbyists.

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.

Thurber served on the American Bar Association’s task force that, after examining the current lobbying laws, concluded the Lobbying Disclosure Act needs an update.

“We called it the Daschle problem,” Thurber said. The American League of Lobbyists, which is devising its own proposal to reform the law, has taken to calling it the Gingrich loophole. Perhaps Klein will get his own moniker now, too.

Whatever you call it, Thurber is pushing for more disclosure of all the elements of a modern lobbying campaign — the grass-roots and AstroTurf organizing, the social media advocacy, coalition building, advertising and “the entire galaxy of people who are involved in an issue campaign.”

In short, all of the unlobbyists.

“What strikes me is that the level of hypocrisy all around is just so high,” said Burdett Loomis, a University of Kansas political science professor who studies lobbying. He pointed to Obama’s recent blessing of a super PAC to support his re-election efforts and the fact that Members of Congress beat up on lobbyists in speeches while also soliciting them for campaign money.

“The idea that lobbyists are a separate class, some sort of lepers, is just absurd. Newt’s a historian and doesn’t lobby? There’s a word for that, and it’s just bullshit or junk, whatever you’re able to print,” he said.

Sometimes the charade, or hassle, of being an unlobbyist just loses its appeal. After all, to do it legitimately you must track your time diligently for every client to make certain that no more than 19 percent of your work for any one client is lobbying. And you can’t make more than one lobbying contact with a covered official.

There was a time when Bob Dole was an unlobbyist. He even had his office send a message to Congress, alongside a lobbying registration, filed by Bob Dole Enterprises. “The purpose of this letter is to advise you that former Senator Bob Dole does not lobby on behalf of Johnson & Johnson or any other client,” the 2000 note explained.

Since then, Dole, who is now special counsel with Alston + Bird, has registered for numerous lobbying clients including the American Beverage Association, Expedia and Peninsula Gaming. Acknowledging what everyone already knew, he’s a lobbyist.

“It becomes a story if you try to fool people,” said Ivan Adler, a K Street headhunter with the McCormick Group.

And really, it seems, nobody’s fooled.

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