Washington Matters


Obama Lobbying Rules
Not Exactly Foolproof

Richard Sammon

What's in a name? A lobbyist by any other name would still peddle influence.



Are there fewer lobbyists in Washington these days? You’d think so if you saw the numbers. But that’s only the official count of registered lobbyists. The new trend is to “de-register” in order to avoid Obama administration rules aimed at restricting government jobs for lobbyists, including cushy presidential appointee positions or plum civil service jobs with a government pension, government health care and plenty of job security.

The most restraining rule under Obama is that no lobbyist who has lobbied in the previous two years can be hired by any agency. Another rule restricts registered lobbyists from seeking to steer stimulus funding or banking bailout dollars. And yet another rule restricts lobbyists from serving on advisory boards that provide input to federal agencies on policies and funding priorities.

A few thousand registered lobbyists have had it with the restrictions. But they’re not giving up on lobbying. They remain doing what they do with the same clients and the same billable hours. The only difference is they’re not on the official lobbying registries in Congress, and, as such, need not disclose the work they do. It’s all under the radar.

So while the number of official lobbyists has dipped under 11,000 since Obama took office, down nearly 20% from a peak of 13,428 in 2007, the actual number of lobbyists working hard to influence policy is far higher. The change in administration, economic recovery efforts, health care legislation, financial regulatory reform, energy cap-and-trade and defense procurement changes ensure a full house of very active lobbyists. While it will never be known exactly, the true number of registered and unregistered lobbyists in Washington is more like 35,000.

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All of which raises the question as to whether Obama is having any success with his campaign pledge to lessen the influence of lobbyists. Obviously, the answer is going to depend on your point of view. The rules are clearly having an effect and they’re being enforced. There have been only six waivers to the rule barring government appointments for people who have lobbied in the previous two years, notably at the Defense Department, the White House office of legal counsel and the office of the first lady. But lobbyists are just as clearly finding loopholes. Many appointees did unofficial lobbying before being hired by the administration and never disclosed the fact, which is hard to verify independently.

Another loophole is the definition of lobbying, which quickly becomes foggy. For instance, if someone is an unofficial lobbyist and is paid by a company to advise it about how to get business from Washington but did not actually meet or talk with government officials on the company’s behalf, is that lobbying? Thousands do it and don’t call themselves lobbyists. It will remain a curious and unresolved matter in the lobbying industry for years yet.



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