How Washington lobbyists peddle power
The equivalent of six health-care lobbyists for every member of Congress are registered for this year's biggest political battle.
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“Our strongest asset is our rank-and-file activist. To have 250,000 people in the field, as we did during the [2008 presidential] campaign and [that] we have now on healthcare, that is the strongest weapon that we have, and the more we strengthen that, the stronger we will be.”Skip to next paragraph
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A NUMBER OF INDUSTRIES have trimmed lobbying expenditures because of the weak economy. Data from the CRP show revenues at several major Washington lobbying firms dropped 10 percent or more in the first half of 2009. The home building, defense, and transportation industries have all trimmed their lobbying efforts, and the number of registered lobbyists in Washington now stands at 12,552, down 2,248 from a year ago.
Another factor making the life of a lobbyist less pleasant is stiffer rules on lobbying imposed by the Obama administration.
“They applied unprecedented rules to their own administration,” Democracy 21’s Wertheimer says. Among other things, the administration imposed rules barring administration appointees from leaving office and seeking lobbying jobs while Barack Obama is president. They also forbid new officials from making policy on matters involving their former employers or clients for two years or working for an agency they lobbied within two years.
The administration also barred executive branch officials from speaking to lobbyists seeking economic stimulus funds under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act.
After a protest from the lobbying community, the Obama administration later revised the rules, narrowing the time frame when the ban applied and expanding it to cover everyone seeking to exert influence on contract awards, not just lobbyists.
Reviews are mixed on the effectiveness of the new rules. Reporting requirements on those seeking stimulus funds are off to a slow start. In August, the government reported only eight lobbying contacts on the $787 billion stimulus bill, according to the Associated Press. The Pentagon, which controls $7.4 billion in stimulus spending, reported only one contact from a lobbyist so far this year.
The White House argues that the low number of reported interactions shows the rules are working. “This is a good thing, not a bad thing,” White House counsel Norm Eisen told the Associated Press. But one lobbyist said that rather than visit the Energy Department herself to seek stimulus funds, she sent her client, who wasn’t a registered lobbyist. So the low number of reported interactions may indicate some lobbyists have found a way around the rules.
Administration rules trying to slow the revolving door between government and lobbying firms received high praise from influence-industry watchdog groups.
“They demonstrated that President Obama was serious and cared about these issues,” says Wertheimer. “No one has come close to doing what they have done in terms of the revolving-door provisions for people who leave the administration.”
But the revolving-door rules also make it difficult for lobbyists for nonprofit causes to work on issues to which they have devoted their lives.
“I’m disappointed that the president has adopted such a restrictive policy,” says Ralph Neas, chief executive officer of the National Coalition on Health Care and a longtime civil rights activist. “It is a tragedy ... too many good people have been kept out.”
In some cases, the Obama administration ran into what CRP executive director Krumholz calls “the cold, harsh reality of the onerous task of filling political appointments” and did end up hiring lobbyists for key positions.