Herson: Obama Wants to Limit Lobbyists, but Not His

Posted February 4, 2011 at 5:20pm

Near the end of his State of the Union address last month, President Barack Obama asked Congress to post online all of their meetings with lobbyists. Those in the room say the sighs were audible. It’s an oldie but a goodie. When this president starts to feel the pressure, he falls back on his old adage of when the going gets tough, the tough get going … after lobbyists.

It’s unclear what problem he is actually trying to solve with this constant and incessant rhetoric. Will posting these meetings online and limiting lobbyists’ access reduce the deficit or eliminate the national debt? Will it result in a decrease in unemployment or produce an end to the war in Afghanistan? Or will it solve the problem of climate change and ensure that no child in this country goes to bed hungry at night?

What’s even more astounding is that, as the president knows, not only is his anti-lobbyist crusade not solving those problems, it has actually created new ones.

By not allowing his administration to hire registered lobbyists for political posts (without the occasional waiver), he has denied himself, and the country, access to some of the best and brightest people who have the right knowledge and expertise to serve in these positions. Would it be so terrible to appoint someone to a senior job at the Environmental Protection Agency who has spent several years lobbying for clean air and water? Would it be so awful to hire someone at the Department of Housing and Urban Development who has spent years lobbying to help the inner cities or to appoint someone to a position at the Department of Education who has spent his life lobbying to improve literacy in the Unites States? Apparently the president believes that, and his administration and the country suffer the consequences.

But what does the president really believe when it comes to lobbyists? After all, he has granted dozens of waivers to lobbyists to serve in his administration. And while he has his staff post online and in the White House visitors log all meetings with lobbyists, the New York Times disclosed last year that his staff has just moved those meetings across the street to Caribou Coffee and Starbucks so they don’t have to be reported. His own staff knows they need information from lobbyists to do their jobs, so to get that information, they go around their very own rules.

So, now he has the audacity to ask Congress to do the same thing? He and his staff know full well that this will result in Members of Congress moving many of their meetings to similar coffeehouses or to the Capitol Hill Club and the National Democratic Club. So, in the end, what does this really achieve?

But there’s more when it comes to the president’s view of lobbying and lobbyists. While he may not hire lobbyists, he will in fact hire you to “be” a lobbyist. In fact, the president runs the largest lobbying firm in Washington.

A cursory review of public records indicates that the president has about 300 people handling legislative affairs in the White House and the federal departments and agencies. This does not include support staff and the legislative affairs positions in the countless Congressional liaison offices in government offices such as the Commission of Fine Arts, the Farm Credit Administration, the Postal Regulatory Commission and numerous others. So, it is not a far stretch to estimate that the president’s lobbying team is upward of 1,000 people.

It is highly doubtful that the president wants “those” meetings posted online when his lobbying team visits the Capitol. It’s not that he wants to impede lobbying as a whole, he wants to impede everyone else’s lobbying. Not exactly a prescription for a strong democracy and free and open debate and, not to mention, constitutionally questionable.

As we all learned in our political science classes, we have three equal branches of government — one of those branches being the courts. Wouldn’t you want a lawyer helping you navigate the complex morass surrounding a class-action lawsuit, a medical malpractice claim, a contentious divorce or even a criminal defense? Then why is it so unreasonable to have a lobbyist help people and corporations navigate equally complicated legislative and executive branches?

From our childhood, we are taught to take pride in our work, and there is no reason why lobbyists should not take pride in theirs. Lobbyists are an essential part of the government machine. The system cannot function without them, and lobbyists make a difference for this country every day by ensuring that our elected leaders are armed with the information they need to do their jobs and serve their country.

We expect more from our president especially during these troubled times. It’s time to leave the used-car salesman/politician/lobbyist jokes to the late night comics and get serious about the business of governing. The nation faces a series of complex challenges. The lobbyists are here to do their part to help solve them.

Michael Herson is president of American Defense International Inc., a Washington, D.C., government affairs firm.