Ruth Marcus
Columnist March 8, 2012

Steve Ricchetti is a once and, no doubt, future lobbyist. So it was inevitable that Vice President Biden’s decision to hire Ricchetti as a senior adviser would prompt howls about Obama administration hypocrisy.

After all, it had pledged to keep lobbyists out of its White House, and now it was bringing in one of the city’s top you-know-whats.

Ruth Marcus is a columnist and editorial writer for The Post, specializing in American politics and domestic policy. View Archive

Make that former you-know-whats: Ricchetti, cleansing himself of the supposed sin of lobbying, had dropped his lobbyist registration shortly before the start of the Obama administration — though he remained head of the, yes, lobbying firm he founded with his lobbyist brother.

As my colleague Dana Milbank tartly noted, “Only in today’s Washington could a president circumvent his own ban on hiring lobbyists by hiring the head of a lobbying firm.”

Nice line.

But maybe the real problem of the Obama White House is not that it has too many lobbyists. Maybe the real problem is that it has had too few. Maybe if the Obama administration had had more Ricchettis from the start, it would have had fewer problems.

After all, lobbyists are people who know how to get things done in Washington — hard things, because the easy ones don’t require an arsenal of lobbyists on fat retainers.

President Obama’s self-imposed ban on lobbyists delivered on a campaign pledge adopted in the aftermath of the seamy Jack Abramoff scandal. As I wrote at the time, “The ugly excesses and outright criminality . . . argue for this cleansing of a corrupt system. The new rules serve, as Nathaniel Hawthorne wrote of Hester Prynne wearing her letter, as ‘a living sermon against sin.’ ”

But as with Hawthorne’s scarlet letter, the community is complicit in the sins it purports to scorn. Lobbyists are the symptom of a broken system, not its cause.

Despite the popular image of the lobbyist as a martini-swilling glad-hander dispensing bags of campaign cash, most lobbyists I know would be delighted to get off the relentless fundraising treadmill.

The Ricchettis of the world — most of them, anyway — don’t go into government to bump up their eventual private-sector paychecks, or to help out their private-sector clients. They go into government because it’s more rewarding, in the nonmonetary sense, than lobbying. The lobbying work is what they do to be able to afford the public-sector stints.

I’m not arguing that lobbyists are candidates for sainthood — just that they are not the demons of popular, and Obama campaign, imagination.

Meanwhile, Obama’s anti-lobbyist edict was inherently flawed: simultaneously too narrow, too broad and too porous.

The rules were too narrow in the sense that they applied only to registered lobbyists, a technical distinction that bears little relation to real-world understanding. Thus former Senate majority leader Tom Daschle, Obama’s initial choice to be secretary of health and human services, did not run afoul of the rule because he was a “policy adviser,” not a lobbyist.

More fundamentally, the rules failed to distinguish between lobbyists and others with equal, if not greater, potential conflicts. What sense is there in a rule that would disqualify a lobbyist for the pharmaceutical industry but not the CEO of a drug company?

At the same time, the rules were too broad in that they allowed for no distinction among lobbyists, equally disqualifying a lobbyist for an environmental group and the lobbyist for the coal industry.

And they were too porous: The administration gave itself the wiggle room to grant waivers, which guaranteed that it would be accused of hypocrisy when, for example, it allowed an exemption to let the top lobbyist for a major defense contractor become deputy defense secretary.

The blowback on that one made the White House reluctant to approve additional waivers, which ended up disqualifying consumer advocates from consumer safety posts and human rights lobbyists from positions at the State Department. That’s not upholding ethical standards — it’s shooting yourself in the foot.

Lobbyists “have not funded my campaign, they will not run my White House and they will not drown out the voices of the American people when I’m president,” then-candidate Obama piously proclaimed.

So when the Republican National Committee uses those words from Obama 2008 to ding Obama 2012, it has a point. But the administration’s real sin isn’t being hypocritical. It’s being naive about how Washington works and elevating ethical style over substance.

ruthmarcus@washpost.com