Obama reversal shows difficulty of limiting lobbyists' D.C. clout

Faced with a lawsuit, President Obama has backed off his policy of banning lobbyists from serving on federal commissions and advisory panels. Lobbyists can offer 'technical expertise,' but critics say they also wield 'undue influence.'

Photo Illustration: Melanie Stetson Freeman
A lobbyist at the Capitol building in Washington.

President Obama is retreating from a policy that banned lobbyists from serving on federal advisory boards – an about-face that underscores how hard it is to take even modest steps to curb the role of paid influence-peddlers in Washington.

The shift on lobbying, which goes into effect this week, was prompted by a federal appeals court ruling against the Obama administration in January.

The impact of the change, by itself, isn’t major. Lobbying remained a large and well-oiled part of Washington’s machinery after Mr. Obama announced the ban in 2010. But the lifting of the ban symbolizes how lobbyists enjoy court-recognized rights of free speech, similar to the First Amendment rights of donors to political groups.

Under the new policy, a registered lobbyist representing an industry, labor union, or nonprofit group can again serve on federal panels designed to give policy advice from the private sector to government. The Commerce Department and the office of the US Trade Representative, in particular, have many such boards.

These panels “exist for the very purpose of reflecting the viewpoints of private industry,” Judge David Tatel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals wrote in January.

Under the revised policy, registered lobbyists will be able to serve on boards if they are appointed to represent a group or industry, but will still be banned if they would be serving solely as a private citizen.

Charles Rothfeld, an attorney who represented six lobbyists in the lawsuit, said the administration’s policy shift “vindicates the First Amendment rights of these individuals, while also allowing trade agencies to benefit from their technical expertise.”

That point about “technical expertise” is important. Despite the hand-wringing by politicians about lobbyist influence, the current culture of Washington leans on non-government experts – often lobbyists – as sources of ideas, expertise, and legislative language.

Obama acknowledged as much back in 2010 in announcing his policy. “Lobbyists can sometimes play a constructive role by communicating information to the government,” he said.

But Obama decried the “undue influence of special interests that for too long has … drowned out the voices of ordinary Americans.”

Social scientists point to evidence that precisely this kind of drowning-out has occurred for years.

Martin Gilens of Princeton University and Benjamin Page of Northwestern University, for example, looked at 1,779 cases of policymaking between 1981 and 2002. They compared political outcomes with what special interest groups were advocating and what the general public (in opinion polls) favored, and found that “economic elites and organized groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts” on policy, while average citizens do not.

The amount of money flowing into politics and lobbying, meanwhile, has been soaring.

Although the number of registered lobbyists hasn’t changed much in the past 17 years (it’s about 11,000 today), the money spent on lobbying has more than doubled during that time, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Lobbying has grown almost twice as fast as the economy has grown. The same is true for campaign donations – often given by people in the same industries that are eager to have their lobbyists bend the ear of lawmakers.

In all, lobbying activity totaled $3.3 billion in 2012, and political campaign spending totaled $6.3 billion, the Center for Responsive Politics reports on its OpenSecrets.org website.

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