Obama’s Asterisks

A better explanation for Obama's "lobbyist problem"

When Health and Human Services nominee Tom Daschle withdrew from consideration last week, the press began debating whether the Obama administration was observing the spirit of its ban against lobbyists in government, even if it was largely honoring its letter. After leading a recent column for Time with White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs’s assertion, “If you’re not registered to lobby, you can’t be a lobbyist,” Michael Scherer retorted: “Although he never registered [as a lobbyist], Daschle, in fact, made millions of dollars after he left government doing stuff that looks, smells, and tastes a lot like lobbying.” Scherer’s objection is that, while Daschle technically avoided the kinds of contacts with lawmakers that would require him to register with Congress as a lobbyist, he was working as a “policy advisor” for a lobbying firm that had several clients in the health care industry.

Daschle is not the only nominee whose appointment undermined the White House’s status as a lobbyist-free zone. Deputy defense secretary nominee William J. Lynn III was an indisputable lobbyist for the defense contractor Raytheon. And Mark Patterson, who formerly represented the investment bank Goldman Sachs, is working as chief of staff for the Treasury Department. (Watch your backs, guys—Chuck Norris took you to task in an “exclusive commentary” yesterday at World Net Daily.)

Even cynics who always thought Obama’s no-lobbyist stance was more PR than substance have to be surprised at the number of nominations that so obviously contradict one of the new president’s most high profile declarations. The press is calling out the new president for hypocrisy: “During almost two years on the campaign trail, Barack Obama vowed to slay the demons of Washington, bar lobbyists from his administration and usher in what he would later call in his Inaugural Address a ‘new era of responsibility.’ What he did not talk much about were the asterisks,” wrote The New York Times’s Peter Baker.

But those seeking a compelling explanation for these asterisks would do well to remember Bill Clinton’s slogan: it’s the economy, stupid. Specifically, the realities of the job market for public policy experts who know how government works.

Although many Americans think that DC is brimming with craven, corrupt automatons, politicians and their staffers generally earn far less than they could in the private sector—in positions that have zero job security. When they leave office (or their boss does), some take sleazy lobbying jobs (I’m looking at you, congressman-turned-pharma-exec Billy Tauzin). But many who go into lobbying or private industry do so in order to continue to advance the same causes that they championed while in government. There’s nothing surprising about, say, a former congressman with education policy experience taking a job with an ed policy lobbying firm—that’s where their experience would be most generously compensated. It’s the free market at work.

It’s hard to remember this, but politicos are workers, too. Some get fat off the system by peddling influence, but most do what workers in other sectors do: try to make a good living using the skills they’ve sacrificed to acquire. And unless the taxpayers are willing to balance the economic playing field by paying government officials and academics more (fat chance), there probably is no way to completely insulate government from the private sector.

On February 4, Washington Post columnist Ruth Marcus bravely defended her city’s untouchables:

Lost in the popular vision of martini-swilling lobbyists is the reality that, in a government grown so sprawling, lobbyists perform an indispensable mediating function, simultaneously translating the legitimate needs of the clients they represent to policymakers and vice versa.

Certainly, some would-be lobbyists see a government job as a ticket-punching stop on the way to riches on K Street; some current lobbyists see a stint in government as a way to enhance their billables on the other side of the revolving door. But Washington right now is full of people with seven-figure salaries elbowing to get administration jobs that pay a fraction of that. Most, I’d guess, aren’t scheming to get rich later but are yearning to be inside the room, not lingering outside.

If Marcus is right, the problem isn’t that Barack Obama lacks the resolve to resist lobbyists’ charms. It’s that he has a practical problem. The jobs that give people the know how to run government are inherently insecure, and, as a consequence, many people inevitably spend time in the private sector. So maybe we’re better off fighting corrution by judging the character of those who are appointed to top jobs and the interests on behalf of which they’ve worked, not through ironclad rules that lead to inevitable disappointment.

Americans are right to demand the highest standards of their policy makers, and I, like Marcus, support the lobbyist prohibition. But I wish the press did a better job explaining the trade-offs facing those in public service. Americans might be less frustrated if they understood that Washington is a far more complicated place than reporters often lead them to believe.

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Lester Feder is a freelance reporter based in Washington, D.C., and a research scientist at George Washington University School of Public Health.