Obama’s Lobbying Ties

A campaign blog.
May 19 2008 5:31 PM

Obama’s Lobbying Ties

Barack Obama stepped up his anti-lobbyist rhetoric yesterday after a fifth McCain staffer, former Texas Rep. Tom Loeffler, resigned due to lobbying ties. Obama took the opportunity to reiterate his stance on lobbyists: "We're not gonna take money from PACs, we're not gonna take money from federally registered lobbyists, because we want to be accountable to the American people."

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But it’s almost impossible to get elected without relying to some degree on lobbyists, and the Obama campaign is no exception. Candidates need to know the best-connected people in Washington; and the best-connected people in Washington tend to lobby. So, naturally, any candidate needs to make some exceptions. Here’s a rundown of the campaign’s lobbying loopholes, from smallest to largest:

State and local lobbyists are OK . In January, former South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges became Obama’s national co-chair, despite having founded the state-based lobbying firm Hodges Consulting Group in 2003. Likewise, his New Hampshire co-chair is a state lobbyist for the pharmaceutical and financial services industries. Taking money and services from state lobbyists is fair game, Obama says, because he doesn’t have any influence on the state level. But that didn’t stop him from criticizing John Edwards in January when it was revealed that a contributor of his was a state lobbyist. So when you hear the candidates talk about rejecting "Washington lobbyists," remember that "Washington" is a qualifier.

Employers of lobbyists are OK . Obama has taken $15 million from lawyers/law firms, according to the Center for Responsive Politics , and many of those firms employ lobbyists. Clinton has taken slightly more from this group ($15.4 million) while McCain has taken less ($4.2 million).

Employees of firms that lobby are OK . Take Tom Daschle. The former senator was an early and avid Obama supporter and is now a national campaign co-chair. Daschle is not himself a federally registered lobbyist, but he works at Alston & Bird , a firm that employs federally registered lobbyists and raked in $2.6 million in lobbying fees in 2004.

Advice is OK . Obama does not ban even current lobbyists from lending advice to the campaign—which could be considered an "in kind" contribution. Moses Mercado, a former adviser to Dick Gephardt and a lobbyist for Ogilvy Government Relations, volunteers his advice and time for the campaign but declined to be on payroll.

Spouses and family members are OK . Even if being a lobbyist makes you an untouchable scumbag, that doesn’t mean your spouse is. Back in December, The Hill reported that an Obama fundraiser had encouraged a lobbyist to have his wife contribute. "I was quite taken aback," the lobbyist said. There’s currently no database of spouse contributions.

Former and future lobbyists are OK . The Obama campaign restricts current lobbyists from joining the campaign. But a bunch of former lobbyists have helped out—including deputy campaign manager Steve Hildebrand, Teal Baker, and Emmett Beliveau —who could easily slip back onto K Street once the campaign is over. Obama now has 14 bundlers who are also federally registered lobbyists, but they are currently inactive, according to Public Citizen. (Clinton has 22 lobbyist bundlers; McCain has 70.) However, campaign-finance reformers point out that no campaign has ever taken the step of banning current and former lobbyists. "It’s hard to come up with any stronger of a firewall," says Craig Holman of Public Citizen .

That’s not to say there isn’t a distinction between Obama and McCain. "The McCain campaign, you can’t spit without hitting another lobbyist there," says David Donnelly, director of the Public Campaign Action Fund .

Likewise, Obama has kept lobbyists at arm's length all along, while McCain’s campaign only instituted its ethics policy last week after two embarrassing departures. (Regional campaign manager Doug Davenport and Republican convention chief Doug Goodyear had both represented the military government in Burma.) "I believe he now understands that it is going to hurt him," says Holman. "That’s why he’s taken this new ethics pledge. He recognizes Obama has gained the high road."

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