Lobbyists Comfy in Obama White House

Media coverage ignores Obama’s cozy relationship with lobbyists and shattered promises of transparency

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October 16, 2012

Federal lobbyists may regain influence if Republican candidate Mitt Romney is elected president, according to a Politico story published Monday.

Yet the implication—that lobbyists have seen their influence wane under President Barack Obama—is belied by the facts.

The president has certainly talked a big game when it comes to getting tough on lobbyists.

"I am in this race to tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over," he said as a candidate in November 2007. "They have not funded my campaign, they will not run my White House, and they will not drown out the voices of the American people when I am president."

However, the president's actions have not matched his rhetoric.

"They will not run my White House"

Obama began seeking the advice of lobbyists before he was even sworn in. The Washington Post counted more than a dozen registered lobbyists on the Obama-Biden Transition Team, including the transition director John Podesta, founder and former president of the liberal think tank Center for American Progress.

On his first day in office, Obama signed an executive order codifying this pledge to ban lobbyists from his administration, and crack down on the so-called "revolving door" between the federal government and the lobbying industry.

Just two days later, however, the nonpartisan fact-checking website PolitiFact noted that Obama’s policy included a lenient waiver clause that would allow the administration to hire lobbyists.

"We rate Obama's ‘revolving door’ policy for former lobbyists his biggest broken promise," PolitiFact wrote at the time.

The administration went on to hire at least 50 such lobbyists, granting waivers or recusals in order to get around the new rules.

Former lobbyists tapped for leading roles in the White House include: Mark Patterson, chief of staff to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner and a former Goldman Sachs lobbyist; William Lynn, a former deputy secretary of defense who worked as a lobbyist for defense industry giant Raytheon; Steve Ricchetti, recently hired as a counselor to Vice President Joe Biden after making millions lobbying on behalf of taxpayer-subsidized clients such as Fannie Mae and General Motors; Ron Kirk, U.S. Trade Representative and former lobbyist for Merrill Lynch; and Cecilia Muñoz, director of the Domestic Policy Council and a former immigration lobbyist.

In some cases, the White House hired individuals who were not officially registered as lobbyists, but were actively involved in the lobbying industry.

As the Washington Examiner’s Tim Carney pointed out, former White House Deputy Chief Technology Officer Andrew McLaughlin, who previously headed Google’s global public policy and government affairs shop, was never registered as lobbyist. He did, however, work directly on federal policies affecting his former employer, and was found to have discussed such issues with Google lobbyists, potentially in violation of ethics rules.

The New York Times reported in 2010 that senior White House officials had been holding hundreds of "off-site" meetings with lobbyists in order to avoid public disclosure requirements.

"The off-site meetings, lobbyists say, reveal a disconnect between the Obama administration’s public rhetoric—with Mr. Obama himself frequently thrashing big industries’ ‘battalions’ of lobbyists as enemies of reform—and the administration’s continuing, private dealings with them," wrote the Times.

A congressional investigation earlier this year uncovered email exchanges between senior Obama advisers and industry lobbyists, some of which took place on private accounts. The emails revealed the extent to which lobbyists were intimately involved in the shaping of key legislation such as the controversial healthcare reform bill.

The president’s actions stand in direct contrast to his pledge to preside over "the most transparent administration in history."

The lobbying industry has fared well under Obama. Total spending on federal lobbying has averaged nearly $3.5 billion per year since 2009, compared with an annual average of $2.4 billion during former President George W. Bush’s administration.

"They have not funded my campaign"

The president has refused to accept campaign donations from lobbyists. "We don’t take a dime from D.C. lobbyists or special-interest PACs—never have and never will," Obama wrote in a December 2011 fundraising email.

Like his loophole-ridden "revolving door" policy, however, this promise is easily sidestepped.

The New York Times reported last year that at least 15 of Obama’s most prominent campaign bundlers were actively involved in the lobbying industry, though not officially registered as lobbyists.

This dubious distinction was highlighted in February, when the Washington Free Beacon reported that former Democratic congressman and Obama campaign bundler Ron Klein had registered to lobby on behalf of Spirit Airlines Inc.

Klein claimed the registration was a mistake, and subsequently deregistered. The Obama campaign declined to return the money Klein raised (between $200,000 and $500,000).

"Because the bundlers are not registered as lobbyists with the Senate, the Obama campaign has managed to avoid running afoul of its self-imposed ban on taking money from lobbyists," the Times explained. "But registered or not, the bundlers are in many ways indistinguishable from people who fit the technical definition of a lobbyist."

The campaign’s unregistered lobbyist bundlers include Sally Susman, who heads the lobbying shop at the pharmaceutical juggernaut Pfizer. Susman has raised more than $600,000 for the president this cycle, and helped organize a $38,500-a-head Manhattan fundraiser in June that Obama attended. She has also made at least four visits to the White House, according to visitor logs.

David Cohen, who oversees government outreach for Comcast, has raised more than $1.4 million for Obama this cycle, and hosted the president at his Philadelphia home for a June 2011 fundraiser.

Andy Spahn, who runs a government relations firm in Los Angeles, and has lobbied for the DreamWorks film studio, has raised more than $2 million for the president, along with DreamWorks CEO Jeffrey Katzenberg.

Katzenberg’s DreamWorks is currently under investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) amid allegations that the studio illegally bribed Chinese officials to secure exclusive movie rights in the communist nation.

Michael Kempner has raised more than $3 million for Obama, making him the third largest campaign bundler this cycle. Kempner oversees a team of registered government lobbyists via his New Jersey public relations firm, MWW Group.

Obama appointed both Kempner and Spahn to presidential committees.

So far this cycle, the lobbying industry as a whole has contributed nearly twice as much to Obama (nearly $19 million) as they have to Romney ($10 million).