Turning Down the Volume

03 Feb, 2011

By Doug Pinkham
Public Affairs Council President

February 3, 2011

After last year’s State of the Union address, we posed the question, “Why is President Obama still talking about lobbyists?” The nation was battling a sick economy, two wars, a growing deficit and fears of terrorism. And yet the president spent major parts of his speech arguing for excluding lobbyists from the political system.

In fact, he mentioned the word “lobbyist” six times – the same number of times he used the word “recession.” But who’s counting?

Now, 12 months later, the question is, “Why did he stop – or at least slow down?” Granted, he did say the “L-word” twice in his recent State of the Union address – when calling for earmark reform and tougher disclosure laws. But gone were the gratuitous comments that lobbyists routinely “game the system” or have “outsized influence.”

It seems the administration now realizes that anti-lobbying rhetoric can be counter-productive.

First of all, the lobbyist-as-evildoer narrative hasn’t helped the president’s agenda. As we noted last year, voters don’t consider lobbying a big problem. The Pew Research Center for the People & the Press publishes an annual survey on the public’s policy priorities. Last year only 36% of respondents said concerns about lobbyists were a top priority. By contrast, concerns about the economy, jobs and terrorism scored well over 80%.

In the 2011 Pew report, the economy has become an even bigger concern (see chart). Meanwhile, only 37% of the public is worried about lobbyists, which places the profession near the bottom of the list of policy priorities – just ahead of global trade.

The White House and Democratic leaders even tried to make lobbying and campaign funding a key issue in the midterm elections. Remember the accusation that the U.S. Chamber of Commerce was secretly funded by foreign companies? Or the claim that lobbyists couldn’t be trusted to contribute to federal candidates? This strategy won Democrats few friends. And it probably alienated voters who thought it was a distraction from the real concerns of our times.

Portraying lobbyists as villains has also contributed to Obama’s reputation for being anti-business. That’s because his statements about the evils of special interests have focused on corporations and trade associations, not on activist groups or unions. Similarly, he has insisted that the Supreme Court’s decision in the Citizens United case will open the doors to undue corporate influence on political campaigns, not to undue influence from those who oppose business interests.

Perhaps the president recognized that he can’t build positive relationships with CEOs if he constantly questions their companies’ integrity in the public policy world.

In addition, the White House ethics office has exposed more inconsistency (some say hypocrisy) than corruption. Obama pledged in his campaign that no former lobbyist would work in his administration. Yet the president has allowed numerous exceptions to attract top talent. Every time he grants a waiver, Obama looks like he’s not living up to his own standard.

In the past, the administration sounded defensive when explaining its ethics rules and exceptions. While the White House never said so publicly, it’s a good bet the president realized that a high-profile ethics czar was more a liability than an asset. Norman Eisen, who served as special counsel to the president for ethics and government reform, upset a lot of people with policies excluding lobbyists from federal advisory committees and from meeting with officials about stimulus grants.

When Republicans, Democrats, business groups, the ACLU, legal scholars and others opposed these moves, Eisen only became obstinate. And his approach typified the White House’s attitude about advocacy.

But in the latter half of 2010, the administration seemed to shift its strategy – eliminating the ethics czar position and giving these responsibilities to White House Counsel Robert Bauer. There were fewer statements from the ethics office defending its work.  And Eisen, in a recess appointment, was made the new ambassador to the Czech Republic.

This is not to say that all the anti-lobbying rhetoric will disappear, that some in Congress won’t try to clamp down on corporate political involvement, or that lobbying won’t be an issue in the next election.

But it’s becoming clear that the dial on the White House amplifier, which seemed set at “11” during the past two years, has been turned down. The change may not be sufficient to satisfy everyone, but it may be enough to allow a constructive conversation about the proper role of lobbying in a democracy.

Comments? Email me at http://pac.org/contact/blog.