Did Obama Step Over The Line With Lobbyists?

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.

U.S. Constitution, 1st Amendment

President Barack Obama today announced the most sweeping reforms to date with respect to lobbying activities on the part of members of his staff. Here are the basics as reported by the Wall Street Journal:

Under the new rules, Mr. Obama said lobbyists entering his administration won’t be allowed to work on issues for which they had lobbied, or in federal agencies they lobbied, during the prior two years. When they leave the White House, officials won’t be able to lobby the administration for the remainder of Mr. Obama’s presidency. Gifts from lobbyists to anyone serving in the administration will be banned.

“We need to close the revolving door that lets lobbyists come into government freely and lets them use their time in public service as a way to promote their own interests over the interests of the American people when they leave,” said Mr. Obama, who promised during his campaign to crack down on the special interests that he said were limiting progress in Washington.

Now taking some exception with this action is something only a fool would pursue, so here goes.

First, not even I am going to argue that gifts from lobbyists should not be tolerated. Not in the executive branch and not in any other branch of the government. That’s a no-brainer. It would be nice to see some perspective applied to the definition of a “gift. Buying a guy a ham sandwich or even a good steak doesn’t rise, in my opinion, to the level of a bribe and anyone who would compromise his or her principals for such a meager sum is probably going to be inclined to find a way line their pockets one way or the other anyway. But forget it, I’m not going after that windmill. No gifts! 

Restricting incoming members of his staff who may have been employed as lobbyists to work only on items that bear no relationship to their lobbying efforts seems to be tantamount to throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Many lobbyists, contrary to popular opinion, are experts in their fields and have quite a lot of expertise to offer the Obama administration or any administration. Presumably, they were hired because they caught someones eye and that probably happened because they demonstrated some skill or intelligence in their particular field. Now you tell them that we want you to work on low income housing even though you know the ins and outs of health care because you represented, say, the AMA before you got here. That’s ridiculous.

If you are going to hire someone who has lobbying experience, it stands to reason that you are hiring them for their expertise in a given field, not because they were a lobbyist. If you have any misgivings about their ability to transfer their loyalties to you then you shouldn’t hire them. 

As for the prohibition against lobbying the Obama administration so long as Mr. Obama is president, that seems like a useless exercise. Notice that it doesn’t preclude lobbying the Congress. Ideas and legislative agendas are highly fungible commodities. An Obama staffer is going to have value to a lobbying firm regardless of whether or not he is allowed to lobby the administration.

The final piece of his announcement was pure demagoguery. Characterizing the lobbying industry as somehow promoting their own interests which are in some way at odds with the interests of the American people flies in the face of reason. By definition, a lobbyist is representing the interests of some portion of the American people. They aren’t, generally, in the business of trying to subvert the best interests of the country just advance the interests of a particular group as contemplated and authorized by the Constitution.

Our Founding Fathers knew what it was like not to get a hearing before a government. That was one of the reasons that the right to petition the government made it into the Bill of Rights, in fact its part of the very first of those rights that were enumerated. In a huge, complex democracy such as ours, the only way to effectively exercise that right is to organize and employ professionals to represent one’s interests throughout the many layers of government. It isn’t only oil companies, or drug companies, or lawyers that use lobbyists. Community and religious groups, fair housing advocates, immigration and gay rights groups and other special interests all ban together and employ professionals to make their voices heard in Washington and state capitals throughout the country.

I suppose you could ban lobbyists, but that won’t put an end to crooked capitalists or people who would bribe them. That’s a human condition and exists no matter the form of government. Run them out of Washington and the business just migrates to the hinterlands. After all, politicians still do occassionally visit their home states and districts. Far better to have them concentrated in a small area where a weather eye can be kept on their activities.

All politicians perceive the constraints of democracy as a burden. And they’re right in that perception. Democracy is a hard regime under which to govern. There are easier systems and they provide neat solutions for pesky problems like lobbyists.  Fortunately, we’re saddled with a democracy that among other things protects the right of its citizens to make their views, wants and needs known to those who govern.

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