Obama Sends Mixed Signals on Lobbyists

Posted January 9, 2009 at 6:36pm

Far from eschewing lobbyists, aides to President-elect Barack Obama are meeting with a broad array of Washington, D.C., business operatives as they prepare to launch a new administration.

But some top business officials involved in the discussions privately grumble that they lack the kind of access they had at the beginning of the Bush administration and wonder if their agendas are being taken seriously.

In dozens of meetings, conducted over the phone and at transition headquarters in Washington, Obama advisers are querying representatives of various trade associations and industries to determine their priorities.

“We’ve been pleasantly surprised,” said National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors President Dirk Van Dongen, a Washington lobbying veteran publicly known to President George W. Bush as “my friend Dirk Van Dongen.” Van Dongen said NAW officials have “visited with” Obama aides on economic policy and tax policy.

Others are having similar experiences. “They seem to have a very substantial outreach and listening effort going on,” said Dan Danner, chief lobbyist for the generally GOP-friendly National Federation of Independent Business.

Danner said small-business representatives have met with Obama officials on issues such as health care, occupational safety, the stimulus and the Small Business Administration. “But it’s unclear what that means,” he added. “If it results in any kind of change or input into policy — we don’t know yet.”

During the campaign, Obama promised to limit the influence of lobbyists, and his campaign projected an almost palpable distaste for business’ Washington foot soldiers. But he did not say that they would be excluded from the government or that he would decline to work with them.

“Every day, we meet with organizations who present a wide range of ideas for the transition and the administration, both orally and in writing,” Obama transition spokesman Nick Shapiro said in an e-mail. “We believe talking with advocates and experts is a vital part of the transition.”

The extent of substantive interaction varies. Some lobbyists, particularly those representing industries Obama wants to promote, report numerous contacts and substantive meetings.

But other K Street veterans report a shocking new reality.

Top business officials accustomed to red-carpet treatment in the Bush White House say they must stand in line in the cold outside transition headquarters along with people they don’t recognize, waiting to be cleared to meet with Obama staffers they don’t know and who don’t always appear to understand their issues. One veteran business official lamented that the only Obama official he has recognized so far is former Environmental Protection Agency Director Carol Browner — along with lobbying foes for labor and environmental organizations he has seen milling around or standing in the queue.

“We were part of the team” during the Bush transition, reminisced another top K Street player. “The business lobby was not pro-Obama,” he acknowledged. “And for good reason, if you look at the campaign rhetoric.”

Several business representatives wondered whether they were involved in a “check the box” scam designed to show inclusiveness rather than practice it.

“You get your five-minute elevator presentation,” said one top industry lobbyist who said his meetings have been devoid of meaty discussion. “They say nothing. It’s a pure note-taking exercise. Will they be able to say they reached out? Sure.”

Obama appears so far to be sticking to his promise to shed daylight on the process, reversing Bush White House practices most famously exemplified by Vice President Dick Cheney’s secret meetings with energy lobbyists. Instead, business types huddling with Obama officials are immediately told that the position papers and other documents they are pushing across the table are going directly onto the Web.

“As an extension of the unprecedented ethics guidelines already in place for the Obama-Biden Transition Project, we take another significant step towards transparency of our efforts for the American people,” Shapiro said. “Unlike in past transitions, people can go to change.gov and review the meetings as well as the documents we received.”

Several business officials expressed concern that, with labor holding sway in Washington, the initial spirit of inclusiveness toward business could easily dry up.

But officials representing certain business sectors for which Obama has plans, such as the high-tech or alternative fuels industries, do not appear to feel too concerned or excluded.

“I think we’ve had four pretty high-level meetings” along with others at the staff level, said Ralph Hellman, Information Technology Industry Council senior vice president for government relations. “There’s been a huge welcome mat thrown out.” Meetings have included the Washington reps of many of ITIC’s members.

Obama has vowed to computerize everything from classrooms to the entire country’s health records, making the ITIC a potentially critical ally. Hellman said one of the sessions included Michael Strautmanis, a Chicago native close to Obama who will serve as chief of staff in the White House intergovernmental relations and public liaison shop.

Even as some larger associations privately report getting no feedback during their meetings, a spokeswoman for the Solar Energy Industries Association indicated her group has had substantive discussions with Obama aides, even adjusting its priority list to reflect Obama’s own urgent desire to pass a stimulus bill. After “a couple of meetings,” the group decided to try to add economy-stimulating oomph to the solar energy tax credit by making it refundable, she said.