campaign desk

Obama’s Lobbyist Line

A "more complicated truth" on campaign contributions
February 15, 2008

Saturday night at a Jefferson-Jackson dinner in Richmond, Virginia, Barack Obama did it again. He said he hadn’t taken money from lobbyists. The election, he said, was boiling down to “a choice between debating John McCain about lobbying reform with a nominee who’s taken more money from lobbyists than he has, [presumably Hillary Clinton] or doing it with a campaign that hasn’t taken a dime of their money because we’ve been funded by you the American people.” That he does not take money from lobbyists or from political action committees (PACs) is a point Obama often makes on the campaign trail, and his no-dirty-money rhetoric has positioned him as the candidate brave enough to shun business as usual in Washington. In November in Iowa, he said corporate lobbyists “have not funded my campaign.” And in December he said in a New Hampshire Public Radio program, “I intend to tell the corporate lobbyists that their days of setting the agenda in Washington are over, that they had not funded my campaigns…” His message of financial purity is catching on. For just one recent example, a student writing in The Daily Evergreen, the student newspaper at Washington State University, told his readers last week that Obama has been careful not to compromise himself, “rejecting campaign support from Political Action Committees and lobbyists.”

The word “lobbyist” seems to have a particular meaning in Obama’s campaign vocabulary. His stump speeches imply that he is not taking money from people who want things from the government and push for them. The reality is that he has.

To explain:, the Web site of the Center for Responsive Politics, is the most authoritative source on campaign finances. Basing its reports on data from the Federal Election Commission, the Center shows that Obama indeed doesn’t take much money from a sector the Center calls “lobbyists.” Through the end of December, Clinton received more than $800,000 and McCain around $400,000 from this group, which the Center says includes people who work for lobbying firms at the local, state, and federal level and their relatives who are not otherwise employed, as well as those who are officially registered as Washington lobbyists. Obama received contributions of about just $86,000 from this group. Obama’s Web site says he doesn’t take money from Washington lobbyists or political action committees,and the Center says that if his campaign finds that the money came from registered Washington lobbyists, it does get returned.

How meaningful is this? “It’s a politically smart position for him to take. It sounds profound,” says Massie Ritsch, communications director for the Center for Responsive Politics. “But in fact neither PACs nor lobbyists give a lot to presidential campaigns. He’s not leaving a whole lot of money on the table by eschewing PACs and lobbyists.” PAC money represents only about one percent of all the money in a presidential race because, Ritsch says, so many people donate that their contributions dwarf PAC money.

Significantly, the Center’s lobbyist sector excludes in-house lobbyists who work solely for one company, union, trade association, or other group. These people may lobby, but their contributions are grouped in the totals for the various industries they represent, along with contributions from other employees in the sector, their relatives, whatever PAC money has been raised, and donations from trade and professional associations which, of course, carry lots of weight in the horse trading that occurs when legislation is drafted. (Corporations cannot contribute directly to candidates.)

Contributions made by the various industry sectors tell the real story in a presidential race. And shows that Obama is picking up gobs of money put on the table by these special interests—including those involved in health care, which will surely have a lot riding on the outcome of the election and will expect to be heard after the election is over.

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Consider the sector called lawyers and law firms. Clearly, lawyers and law firms lobby on behalf of their own interests—like fighting malpractice reform, which could again surface as a thorny issue for the new administration. Clinton and Obama have raised similar amounts from lawyers and law firms—$11.8 and $9.5 million. McCain and Huckabee have taken far less. The health sector has also given to Obama, Clinton, and McCain. In the pharmaceutical and health product industries, contributions to Clinton total $349,000 and $338,000 to Obama. Again, McCain trails in donations at about $98,000, an indication that the sector sees the real action on the Democratic side of the ballot. Health professionals, which include doctors, nurses, and dentists, have given Clinton some $2.3 million and Obama $1.7 million.

Last August The Boston Globe, in a piece by Scott Helman, took a hard look at Obama’s contributions, noting that “behind Obama’s campaign rhetoric about taking on special interests lies a more complicated truth.” That truth revealed that as a state legislator in Illinois, a U.S. senator, and as a presidential aspirant, Obama had collected hundreds of thousands of dollars from lobbyists and PACs. Helman quoted an Obama campaign spokeswoman saying that after he experienced firsthand the influence of Washington lobbyists, he was taking a different approach to fundraising than he had in the past, and that “his leadership position on this issue is an evolving process.” If Obama’s leadership on campaign financing is indeed evolving, more news outlets should be following the evolution.

Trudy Lieberman is a longtime contributing editor to the Columbia Journalism Review. She is the lead writer for CJR's Covering the Health Care Fight. She also blogs for Health News Review and the Center for Health Journalism. Follow her on Twitter @Trudy_Lieberman.