Bum Rap

Posted June 3, 2008 at 3:12pm

‘The next thing you know, they will send us to a leper colony,” a senior lobbyist commented this week when asked about the banishment of members of his profession from, first, Sen. Barack Obama’s (D-Ill.) presidential campaign and, now, Sen. John McCain’s (R-Ariz.).

Obama, of course, has been railing against lobbyists throughout his campaign — even scapegoating them as somehow responsible for the government’s failure to solve America’s pressing problems. It’s a bum rap, but Obama has succeeded in forcing McCain to bar active lobbyists from his campaign staff, too.

The fact is that politicians — not lobbyists — are to blame for inaction in the nation’s capital. Lobbyists are the representatives of interests trying to influence politicians, but it’s the inability of politicians to reconcile the interests’ competing claims — plus their own ravenous urge to win elections — that has stymied action.

Yet, Obama persists in blaming the messengers. “I am in this race to tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over,” Obama declared last November. “They have not funded my campaign, they will not get a job in my White House, and they will not drown out the voices of the American people when I am president.”

It’s worth noting that while registered federal lobbyists are not permitted to contribute to his presidential campaign — as opposed to his 2004 Senate campaign — he has been willing to accept their help and advice on a volunteer basis and has relaxed his vow to exclude them from his administration, now promising only to restrict them from serving in their areas of expertise.

If he really means to follow this policy through — and forces McCain to follow suit — we believe this will contribute to the dumbing down of government. Experienced lobbyists — for corporations, unions and nonprofit groups — often know as much or more about government policy than anyone in town. Barring them from government jobs would put the administration in a weakened position vis-à-vis special interests that will be represented by lobbyists.

There’s no doubt that, historically, lobbyists distributing money have been a corrupting influence in Washington. But changes in law, some recent, have made lobbying and fundraising quite transparent, although more disclosure of lobbyist contacts could be required. It’s worth noting that while he continues to take contributions from lobbyists and political action committees, McCain has been more forthcoming about the identities of lobbyists volunteering in his campaign than Obama has been.

Embarrassed by the client lists of some of his lobbyist friends — notably, Burma’s military junta and other odious dictators — McCain recently declared that “at a time when many working families can hardly afford their mortgage, their groceries and gas for their car or truck, we need to close the door on corporate lobbyists.”

The fact is, closing the door on lobbyists would not lower gas or good prices. What’s required is for the next president and Congress to make some wise and tough decisions — and get the best advice they can in the process.