One year from now, we have the chance to tell all those corporate lobbyists that the days of them setting the agenda in Washington are over. I have done more to take on lobbyists than any other candidate in this race – and I’ve won. I don’t take a dime of their money, and when I am President, they won’t find a job in my White House. – Obama, Spartanburg, SC, November 3, 2007
Be careful what you wish for, you just may get it. Barack Obama won the Democratic nomination by separating himself from the rest of the Democratic candidates, especially Hillary Clinton, with a message promising to bring change to Washington. He used many rhetorical devices to get this point across, but his riff about lobbyists won him the most enthusiastic applause at every event I watched on C-Span.
We can be a party that says there’s no problem with taking money from Washington lobbyists – from oil lobbyists and drug lobbyists and insurance lobbyists. We can pretend that they represent real Americans and look the other way when they use their money and influence to stop us from reforming health care or investing in renewable energy for yet another four years.
Or this time, we can recognize that you can’t be the champion of working Americans if you’re funded by the lobbyists who drown out their voices. We can do what we’ve done in this campaign, and say that we won’t take a dime of their money. We can do what I did in Illinois, and in Washington, and bring both parties together to rein in their power so we can take our government back. It’s our choice.” Obama, Evansville, Indiana, April 22, 2008
Our own polling and focus groups for clients across the country in 2007 and 2008 told me that he had hit a nerve in the electorate. The word “lobbyists” had become more than a description of a particular profession, but a metaphor for something larger. It symbolized what was wrong with our government, our economic institutions, and our mass media in the nation’s capital. It was a metaphor for a presidency that was not listening to people, government agencies that did not perform, a Congress that represented banks and credit card companies and other powerful interests rather than the needs of average Americans, and a news media that willingly went along with the large deceits while focusing instead on who is up and who is down politically.
The public has it just about right, and Obama correctly exposed the nexus of money/lobbyists/government policy as a source of what is wrong with Washington.
As President he has instituted policies to break up that nexus. He already has instituted a ban against lobbyists going to the White House to plead their cases. He has also signed an executive order forbidding any person who leaves his administration from lobbying the government for the duration of his administrations. These actions are good, and they are unprecedented.
But Obama’s virtually total ban on hiring lobbyists for his administration goes too far. The irony is that while this rule is intended to change Washington it will actually prevent him from effectively bringing about the changes he seeks in Washington. Specifically, the hiring ban on lobbyists misses the mark in two ways:
- First, it places all lobbyists in the same corral. The policy treats someone who lobbied for more federal help for poor children or for the Voting Rights Act the same as someone who lobbied for deregulating derivatives. One can be a professional lobbyist without opposing the kind of change Obama wants to bring to Washington; some lobbyists are fighting to upend the status quo. Disqualifying all people who have lobbied the government on any issue means that many of the professionals in Washington who are committed to the President’s agenda for change AND who know the most about foreign policy, finance, civil rights, health care, the environment, and about how to get legislation through the Congress are locked out of helping him succeed.
- Second, you do not have to be a lobbyist to be an agent of the status quo in Washington. The ban on hiring lobbyists leaves the executive branch door wide open to those who have not been registered lobbyists but who have made policy, or written think tank reports to Congress, or worked at universities or investment banks that represent the opposite direction from where President Obama wants to take the country. Think Larry Summers.
Obama should shed the no-lobbyist rule. He should embrace the pros who believe in what he is trying to do. He can use their talents, and still win the change he wants on his own terms.