Leaning On Lobbyists

Posted May 10, 2009, at 7:29 p.m.

In President Obama’s Washington, lobbyists may feel as quarantined as swine flu victims. Whether this treatment reduces the influence of special interests remains to be seen. The effort is laudable, but ultimately, good government hangs on the ethics of public officials.

As early as 2007, the Obama presidential campaign said it would not take donations from federally registered lobbyists. After the inauguration, the president signed an executive order restricting the White House jobs for which former lobbyists could be considered.

Executive agencies can’t hire lobbyists to work in their areas of expertise, unless the White House issues a waiver. To date, four such waivers have been granted, according to NPR. More recently, the administration issued rules that mandate that lobbyists advocating for stimulus-fund projects must do so in letters posted online only.

Dave Wenhold, president of the American League of Lobbyists, told NPR: “They don’t go into a meeting and ask, ‘Are you a felon, are you a child molester, are you a terrorist?’ But they will ask if you’re a lobbyist, and ask you to leave.” Mr. Wenhold believes lobbyists, because they have to register, are actually more accountable than many players in the capital.

This complaint gets at the heart of the insidious yet symbiotic nature of lobbyists in government. Politicians score with voters by promising to neuter special interest groups. Yet elected officials are generalists; they know a little about a lot things. Unless they immerse themselves in the finer points of, say, the efficacy of ethanol subsidies, elected officials rely on the experts in specific subject areas, even if those experts are “hired gun” advocates.

A landmark example is then-Vice President Dick Cheney’s private meetings with oil, gas and coal industry insiders to develop the Bush administration’s energy policy. Both Mr. Bush and Mr. Cheney had worked in the industry and perhaps were able to separate the wheat from the chaff in the recommendations from the industry representatives. And it is also likely that both had developed relationships with lobbyists so they knew whom to trust.

But the private nature of the meetings, and Cheney’s refusal to release information about them, let to an erosion of public trust.

Attend a meeting of a committee of the Maine Legislature and you may hear legislators asking questions of the lobbyists sitting in the room. Often, it is lobbyists who hold the institutional memory on an issue, especially since term limits puts legislators out to pasture sooner.

Republicans do not hold a monopoly on allowing such influence. Democrats turn to lobbyists just as quickly.

The legislators who complain about the pressure from lobbyists reveal where the weak link lies.

President Obama’s desire to keep former lobbyists out of the West Wing, and former West Wingers out of the halls of Congress is praiseworthy. But good public policy will come from the commitment of elected officials to serve the public at large. Disclosure of whom they meet with might go further to ensure good government.

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