Influence Game

NYT's Podesta profile lets lobbyist define the terms

The New York Times has the very good idea to profile Tony Podesta, whose Washington lobbying group has made a quick climb in recent years to become one of the biggest firms on K Street.

As we’ve said before, lobbyists get treated a bit like wallpaper in the capital, and it’s important for readers to see just how much power they really have. But while the Times does well to point out Podesta’s big—and growing—role, it’s way too content to take him at his word when it comes to describing just what he does in the corridors of power. The lobbyist doesn’t appear to have been challenged much, either in questioning or in the story later, even when spouting what is obviously pure hokum.

Podesta sits front and center of the business section in the print edition. Below him:

The Proud Lobbyist

Tony Podesta Says It’s About Information, Not Influence

Oh really? It’s not about influence?

Here’s the lede from the Times:

On the eve of a critical Congressional vote last week on a sweeping measure to regulate Wall Street, the prominent lobbyist Tony Podesta met with one of the lawmakers to go over some final language and discuss the effect it could have on his many corporate clients.

A bit later in the piece, Podesta explains that “he sees his main role as giving information to lawmakers rather than wielding influence.” Then there’s this:

“Members want to understand what they’re doing,” he said. “It improves decision making for people to understand the consequences of what they’re about to do. People draft language all the time and don’t think about how it applies in different situations.”

So sure, that corporate client in the lede is paying Podesta the big bucks to make sure that a member of Congress understands what he or she is doing. But come on. The client is also paying Podesta to influence the outcome.

That’s why business is booming for the Podesta Group. Its team of lobbyists—which the NYT tells us has tripled in the last four years—is busy working on financial regulation, the BP oil spill, health care, and more.

And the successes that the Times points to sure seem to be about influencing how things turn out. Podesta and lobbyists in his firm, including a former top aide to Sen. Check Schumer, lobbied a host of big players on the Hill, including Barney Frank and Chris Dodd, to help a client avoid falling under the jurisdiction of the SEC.

Once the Podesta team realized it could not defeat the idea, it resorted to an old Washington standby — delay by study.

In the end, House and Senate negotiators agreed last week to a government study, delaying federal jurisdiction and possible S.E.C. oversight.

“It wasn’t a total loss,” Mr. Podesta said. “We ended up in the middle.”

So, SEC jurisdiction avoided for now. But what the client is really happy about is that those bigshots on the Hill got the information they need!

As any Podesta profile must, the Times points out that the lobbyist’s brother, John, is also a powerful Washington figure who led President Obama’s transition team.

Roll Call reported recently that the Podesta brothers may be divided over the BP spill. John, president of the Center for American Progress, the liberal think tank, has taken a tough line on the oil giant, while Tony has been helping BP with its relations in Congress (and managed to get the company more time to turn over the documents that congressional investigators were after).

As the Times tells it, those fraternal bonds can sometimes be tough for other reasons:

Some prospective clients, in fact, will contact Mr. Podesta because of his brother’s ties to Mr. Obama. “People approach us and say, ‘Can you call your brother and get him to call the president,’ and we’ll say, ‘No.’ It’s not what we do. We don’t do access lobbying.”

You don’t do access lobbying? What do you call it when you meet with a lawmaker on the eve of a critical vote? Or when that ex-Schumer aide calls his old boss to talk about that SEC provision? That’s not to mention the more than $600,000 in contributions to candidates and PACs that Podesta has made, or the fundraisers he’s hosted.

The Times profile also checks another box, highlighting Podesta’s contemporary art collection.

Too bad it doesn’t mention that Podesta and his wife, Heather, another lobbyist in the firm who has her own lobbying firm, donated Shepard Fairey’s iconic Obama portrait to the National Portrait Gallery. Now, this is how you win friends and influence people.

The story does, however, point out that Obama’s busy legislative agenda has been good for lobbyists like Podesta, despite the president’s tough talk about curbing their power.

Or maybe, it’s because of the president’s tough talk:

“The irony of it is that every time the president says we lobbyists have all this influence, people who don’t have a lobbyist want one,” Mr. Podesta said in an interview. “He exaggerates our power, but he increases demand for our services.”

Put Podesta down as confident that he can weather the criticism, and the new restrictions.

“Whatever they’re gonna do, they’ll do,” he said. “They can ban lobbyists from having drivers licenses. We’ll all get cars and drivers.”

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Holly Yeager is CJR's Peterson Fellow, covering fiscal and economic policy. She is based in Washington and reachable at