Newt Gingrich and ‘lobbying’: a deeper look (Fact Checker biography)
“I’m not in the business of lobbying, period.”
-- Newt Gingrich, on Talk Radio Network’s “The Laura Ingraham Show,” Nov. 16, 2011
“I do no lobbying of any kind. I never have. A very important point I want to make. I have never done lobbying of any kind.”
-- Gingrich, on Fox News, Nov. 17, 2011
Newt Gingrich made these remarks to defend his work with mortgage giant Freddie Mac, which used to be a quasi-government corporation before the government grabbed outright control of the company during the banking crisis. The former House speaker said unequivocally that he never lobbied for the firm.
We covered this topic in a previous column, concluding that Gingrich might have coached Freddie Mac on how to influence conservative lawmakers. He earned two Pinocchios.
As part of our in-depth series on how the GOP candidates describe their pasts--we have previously looked at Mitt Romney and Rick Perry--we decided to examine more deeply Gingrich’s post-Congressional record to see whether the conservative icon had stretched the truth worse than we thought. More Fact Checker columns on Gingrich’s biography will appear every day this week.
Gingrich launched the Center for Health Transformation in 2003, and the think tank collected at least $37 million in dues from its members, who include healthcare-industry heavyweights like Blue Cross Blue Shield and Novo Nordisk. The center promised “access to Newt Gingrich” and “direct Newt interaction,” according to promotional materials.
The Washington Post reported that Gingrich met with Republicans late that year in closed-door meetings to push for adding a perscription drug benefit to the Medicare system. He was about four years removed from serving in Congress, where he’d led the Republican takeover in 1994.
These facts alone — the lucrative ties to the healthcare industry and the work to overhaul Medicare — suggest Gingrich may have been lobbying in all but the most technical sense, because he had never officially registered as a one. As is often the case in Washington, the line is fuzzy between Gingrich’s push for a perscription drug benefit and his think tank’s health care clients.
The Lobbying Disclosure Act defines a lobbyist as:
“Any individual who is employed or retained by a client for financial or other compensation for services that include more than one lobbying contact, other than an individual whose lobbying activities constitute less than 20 percent of the time engaged in the services provided by such individual to that client over a 3-month period.”
Nick Allard, a Washington-based government-investigations lawyer, said much of the advocacy work that occurs in political circles doesn’t meet the statutory definition of lobbying. “A lot of what the man on the street wisely thinks of as lobbying doesn’t actually trigger lobbyist registration,” he said.
That appears to be the case with Gingrich. His actions probably wouldn’t land him in trouble with the law, but the average voter may view them as lobbying. Timothy P. Carney, a right-leaning columnist for The Washington Examiner, examined the record and concluded: “Newt Gingrich was a lobbyist, plain and simple.”
Nancy Desmond, chairman and chief executive of the Center for Health Transformation, said in a statement that the group was designed to be “a unique center of new solutions for transformational projects” that produced ideas and then helped turn them into policies:
“There are many lobbying firms in Washington. There are a number of communications firms that help communicate or sell an idea or a solution or a message. There are a number of think tanks which develop background research and ideas which can become solutions and messages. There are surprisingly few places which help develop practical solutions and then think through strategies for their implementation.”
As for Gingrich’s time with Freddie Mac, the candidate changed his story as more questions arose. First he claimed to have worked as a “historian” who explained how other private-public partnerships had thrived. He later said he’d served as a consultant, helping the firm understand how to appeal to conservatives, and warning that the company’s lending practices were unsustainable.
“I think less than maybe once a month, they would drop by,” Gingrich told Fox News talk show host Greta Van Susteren. “We’d spend an hour. It would always start with me listening. I’d always say: what are you trying to solve, what are your concerns, what are you trying to get done?”
Bloomberg reported that Gingrich made between $1.6 million and $1.8 million while on retainer for the lender, and that his primary contact with the company was chief lobbyist Mitchell Delk.
Delk ended up at the center of a campaign finance scandal in which Fannie Mae lobbyists organized fundraisers for members of the House Financial Services Committee between 2000 and 2003. The Federal Elections Commission fined the Freddie Mac a record $3.8 million in 2006 after the consumer-rights group Public Citizen exposed the lender’s wrongdoing.
Delk insists Gingrich never lobbied for the company. “What he did was provide counsel on public policy issues,” he told Bloomberg. “There was no expectation that he would do any lobbying, and he did not do any lobbying.”
Gingrich campaign spokesman R.C. Hammond provided us with a similar comment. “Newt never performed lobbying,” he said. “He always informed his clients he would not perform lobbying services, and he has never registered as a lobbyist.”
Still, as we reported, even the Gingrich campaign acknowledged, “Freddie Mac was interested in advice on how to reach out to more conservatives.” Former Freddie Mac officials told Bloomberg that the lender expected Gingrich to provide written material aimed at congressional conservatives, but that he didn’t produce a single white paper or other document the lender could use.
The Pinocchio Test
As his Tiffany bills demonstrate, Gingrich has become enormously rich from his deep Washington connections. There’s obviously nothing wrong with that. But the former House speaker makes a rhetorical distinction between his “consulting” work and actually registering as a lobbyist, but it’s one that the average voter likely will find meaningless.
Thus in light of new information, we are upgrading Gingrich’s Pinocchio count to three for his comments on lobbying. If it looks like a duck and quacks like a duck, it probably is a duck.
Check out our candidate Pinocchio Tracker