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Monday, May 21, 2012

Inside the Gates: Lobbyists in the White House

The Washington Post reports that visitor logs for January 17, 2012 show that the lobbying industry that Obama had vowed to constrain was nonetheless a regular presence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. Even though the president barred recent lobbyists from joining his administration or even serving on its advisory boards and forbid federal employees from accepting free admission to receptions and conferences sponsored by lobbying groups, records suggest that lobbyists with personal connections to the White House enjoyed the easiest access. The principle of fairness (not to mention consistency) seems to have been sacrificed for political (and campaign finance) expediency.

Lobbyist Marshal Matz, for example, who served as an unpaid adviser to Obama’s 2008 campaign, gained access to the White House roughly two dozen times through May 2012. He brought along the general council for the Biotechnology Industry Organization, the chief executive of cereal maker General Mills and pro bono clients, including advocates for farmers in Africa. It seems that the “Wall Street needs reform” president was rather pro-business behind the gates.

Another such lobbyist with close ties to the White House was former New York congressman Tom Downey, who at the time was married to Carol Browner. Until 2010, she was Obama’s energy czar. Downey was the head of Downey McGrath Group, a lobbying firm whose clients include Time Warner Cable and Herbalife, which sells nutrition and dieting products. As of January 2012, he had been to the White House complex for meetings and events 31 times. On Dec. 10, 2010, Downey held a meeting with economic adviser Lawrence H. Summers and just happened to bring along Bill Cheney, the head of the Credit Union National Association and one of Downey McGrath’s clients. John Magill, the top lobbyist for the association, said that the group was pushing to lift the cap on the percentage of assets its members can lend out.

“A lot of folks,” Obama said in April 2012, “see the amounts of money that are being spent and the special interests that dominate and the lobbyists that always have access, and they say to themselves, maybe I don’t count.” That is also the inevitable reaction from reading the Post’s analysis of the White House visitor log. Even members of Congress may conclude that they don't count.

According to U.S. Sen. Ron Wyden (D-Oregon), for example, the U.S. Trade Representative was sharing draft negotiation documents on the Trans-Pacific trade deal with the governments of other countries and American corporate executives who serve on advisory boards, no such access was being provided to the majority of Congress or most nonprofit groups. "The majority of Congress is being kept in the dark as to the substance of the TPP negotiations, while representatives of U.S. corporations--like Halliburton, Chevron, PhRMA, Comcast and the Motion Picture Association of America--are being consulted and made privy to details of the agreement," Wyden. A subsidiarity of Halliburton had been accused by the U.S. military of charging it $1.6 billion for fake services. The Motion Picture Association had former U.S. Senator Chris Dodd (D-Conn.) as its head. 

Furthermore, ABC News reported in 2011 that employees of Comcast had "contributed more money to President Obama's reelection bid than employees from any other organization, according to [an] analysis of the Federal Election Commission data by the Center for Responsive Politics."  It appears that the Obama administration was being quite responsive to Comcast in enabling the company to "buy" the access to the trade negotiations. In fact, Obama attended "an intimate fundraiser at the home of Comcast executive vice president David Cohen in Philadelphia in June [2011] and a private 'social reception' at the Martha's Vineyard estate of Comcast CEO Brian Roberts [in August 2011]. Cohen put together more than $500,000 in contributions to the Obama campaign and the DNC for the 2012 election. Nonetheless, the president’s press secretary—speaking as if tone-deaf—said, “Our goal has been to reduce the influence of special interests in Washington — which we’ve done more than any Administration in history.” 

It seems to me that the Obama administration's mutual back-scratching with big business can explain why Obama caved on the "public option" in his health-insurance reform law--essentially handing the existing private insurance companies tens of millions of new customers financed by the U.S. Government without any competition from a public insurer. The close ties can also explain why Obama backed off from his statements that Wall Street banks too big to fail should be broken up preemptively (rather than merely having the government get involved to help out on the liquidation after a bank has gone bankrupt as is the case in the resulting law). Even though the positive correlation of campaign contributions and favorable access and legislation (and trade negotiations) does not in itself prove the existence of a quid pro quo, the fingerprints are all over the darkened windows of Obama's White House. Rather than attacking capitalism, Obama was wallowing in it even as he occasionally threw red meat to his anti-corporate base to get it out to the polls. 

Moreover, both the matter of White House access and access to trade deal negotiation point to the partisan nature of the office of the U.S. Presidency. With regard to the White House access, the Post reports that “Republican lobbyists coming to visit are rare, while Democratic lobbyists are common, whether they are representing corporate clients or liberal causes.” This suggests that the presidency itself may be more partisan than is consistent with representing the United States itself (i.e., the figure-head role of the office).

In general terms, it would be naïve to suppose that powerful figures in Washington, D.C. could somehow be immune from lobbyists when the clients have so much money (i.e., economic power). In other words, concentrated wealth must needs eventuate in pressure on public policy. To restrict lobbyist access at the White House would thus only plug a hole that is a symptom. While doing so might assuage our frustration at such blatant favoritism bought with campaign (or SuperPac) donations, it is that money and the related mammoth size and power of modern corporations that must ultimately be challenged for there to be any change in substance. However, we should not be so naïve as to expect that barring lobbyists from the People’s House or even outlawing corporate political campaign contributions would reduce the influence. Where there are deep pockets of concentrated private wealth, the public weale must needs be so oriented.