The Audacity of Hype
An inside look at how Obama's much-touted ban on campaign contributions from lobbyists has really worked.
Barack Obama was on a roll. Before a cheering crowd in Springfield, Missouri, this summer, the Democratic presidential nominee let loose with a barrage on Washington lobbyists: "So one of the things that we've got to do is not just change the health-care system, but we've also got to change our political system. And that's why I don't take PAC money. I don't take money from federal registered lobbyists, because I want to answer to you when I'm in the White House. I don't want to answer to all these fat-cat lobbyists!"
Running against the proverbial fat cats and moneyed interests is a strategy as old as politics itself. But Obama has taken the tactic to greater lengths than any presidential candidate in history. John Kerry and others declined to take money from political action committees, but Obama's ban on contributions from all of Washington's registered lobbyists--the thousands of people retained by corporations and other entities to push their interests with members of Congress and executive-branch officials--is a step that no party nominee has taken before. So too is his refusal to employ lobbyists on his campaign.
The strategy stretches back to the beginning of the primary campaign, when Hillary Clinton's lead and party connections seemed insurmountable. Early on, the Illinois senator and his top aides decided that a full ban on lobbyists would allow Obama to help paint Clinton as a Washington insider. "It was smart politics," a senior Obama campaign official told me.
It was also a new concept for the candidate. He'd had no problem accepting contributions from registered Washington lobbyists in his previous races for the Illinois statehouse, the U.S. House of Representatives, and the U.S. Senate. So now that he's scoring political points for the ban, what impact has it actually had?
The campaign has no problem accepting money from the spouses of Washington lobbyists. A database search conducted for this column by the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks campaign-finance issues, found that more than 20 spouses of prominent Washington lobbyists have donated to the Obama campaign, including the wives of Dan Glickman, the head of the Motion Picture Association of America; Norman Brownstein, a prominent Denver-based lawyer who has lobbied for Oracle, Toshiba, and Comcast; and Stuart Pape of Patton Boggs, Washington's foremost lobbying firm, who has lobbied for Bristol-Myers Squibb, Pfizer, and the Smokeless Tobacco Council.
The campaign accepts money from lobbyists registered in state capitals. It accepts money from partners at law firms that engage in lobbying. It accepts money from the C.E.O.'s, chairs, and officers of corporations, but not their lobbyists. Obama has received more than $627,000 in contributions from employees of Goldman Sachs, including, for example, $2,300 (the maximum contribution allowed) from the likes of managing director George Butcher. But Michael Berman, a registered lobbyist (and a former adviser to Walter Mondale), cannot give money to Obama because his firm, the Duberstein Group, has lobbied on behalf of Goldman Sachs on energy and tax issues. Aren't such policies a little inconsistent with the ban? "Maybe," said the senior Obama official. "But it's important symbolism."
I recently spoke with a very successful registered Washington lobbyist, a Democrat who asked not to be named in this piece for fear of diminishing his influence with a possible Obama administration. Even though the Obama campaign wouldn't accept a check from the lobbyist personally, he says, Obama aides asked him to help them raise money in other ways. "They wanted my list," the lobbyist says, referring to the many donors the lobbyist has solicited for other campaigns. "Since then, they've asked if I could organize fundraisers but said that I couldn't donate."
Lobbyists have found other ways to work for the campaign, despite the official ban. In May, it emerged that Francisco Pavia, a registered Washington lobbyist whose clients include the Puerto Rican government, was helping to run Obama's efforts in Puerto Rico. The campaign insisted that he was merely a volunteer and not on staff, and thus not in violation of the campaign's own rules. While he was helping the campaign, Pavia took no leave from the firm of Winston & Strawn. The Capitol Hill newspaper Roll Call reported at the end of July that 42 registered lobbyists had donated to Obama's campaign despite the ban; only two had their checks returned. The campaign says that it's doing the best it can to vet every contribution it receives against a database of registered lobbyists.
For all the hand-wringing over lobbyists, it's worth noting that since there are few restrictions on donations to political conventions, the nominating conventions for both candidates were paid for by a slew of direct corporate donors, including AT&T, Qwest, and others. Bill Allison, a senior fellow with the Sunlight Foundation, which promotes transparency in government, notes that the campaigns are "all running around lifting their skirts like there's a mouse, saying 'Eek, there's a lobbyist!' But they're raising tons of money" from corporate interests.
Allison has more meaningful suggestions for curbing the influence of corporate money and lobbyists in both politics and government: Rewrite federal law to require lobbyists to disclose not only whom they lobby for and what issues they lobby on but also whom they've met with. Greater restrictions on what government officials can do in terms of lobbying after they leave public service also make more sense than phony gestures. And of course, free airtime from broadcasters who profit from the public airwaves would diminish the need of candidates to raise money and thus make lobbyists--who wield the promise of their clients' cash--less influential.
Meanwhile, it's worth remembering that lobbying is actually a constitutionally protected right. The Constitution is pretty plain in declaring that "Congress shall make no law.abridging.the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances." That's lobbying. It's one thing for a campaign to decide that it doesn't want, say, pharmaceutical lobbyists writing its proposals on Medicare's funding of prescription drugs, but it's another to ban lobbyists from participation in a campaign entirely. After all, lobbyists represent not only corporations but also all sorts of other groups, from the Susan G. Komen Breast Cancer Foundation to the American Legion.
Perhaps the weirdest moment in anti-lobbyist posturing came this year when Max Cleland, a former Democratic senator from Georgia, was disinvited from appearing with Obama at an Atlanta fundraiser. The reason? Cleland, a Vietnam War hero who lost three limbs while fighting in Southeast Asia, is a registered Washington lobbyist on behalf of Tissue Regeneration Technologies, a company that makes medical devices for wounded veterans and others. Cleland charitably says he was not offended by the disinvitation. But the rest of us should be.Visit Portfolio.com for the latest business news and opinion, executive profiles and careers. Portfolio.com© 2007 Condé Nast Inc. All rights reserved.