The Influence Industry: Obama’s ban on lobbyist bundlers has unclear prospects

February 1, 2012

President Obama, who has a long history of decrying the influence of lobbyists in Washington, wheeled out a new proposal in his State of the Union address last week: Ban registered lobbyists from raising money for political candidates.

If history is any guide, however, the idea may go nowhere.

Obama has made several specific proposals for lobbying reform in his State of the Union addresses, but none have come to pass. He and his fellow Democrats also failed to push through legislation in 2010 that would have required greater disclosure of donors to outside spending groups, an issue the president emphasized that year.

The White House and some watchdog groups say the president deserves credit for continuing to press for limits on the influence of lobbyists and big donors in politics, even if many of his proposals haven’t made it into law because of congressional opposition.

But some activists say they are deeply disappointed in what they see as Obama’s lack of attention to the issue in the latter part of his term, and they suggest that his focus on waging an expensive reelection campaign may be clouding his priorities.

“The issue just seems to have disappeared from his rhetorical radar,” said John Wonderlich, policy director at the Sunlight Foundation, which tracks money in politics. “The president has a responsibility not to just look the other way and say, ‘Yeah, we did what we could.’ The bully pulpit isn’t just about pushing Congress; it’s about acknowledging what’s wrong with the system.”

White House officials strenuously object to such complaints and note that another proposal endorsed by Obama in his Jan. 24 speech — banning insider trading by lawmakers and their aides — appears to be well on its way to passage in Congress.

Spokesman Eric Schultz also said the administration has sometimes “not waited for Congress to act,” pointing to rules enacted at the start of Obama’s term aimed at restricting the ability of lobbyists to get jobs in government.

“Our goal has been to prevent undue influence over the government, which we’ve done more than any administration in history,” Schultz said.

Obama’s interest in lobbying regulations stretches back to his days in the Senate, when he co-sponsored ethics legislation that included disclosure requirements for lobbyist bundlers.

As president, in addition to issuing rules restricting the hiring of lobbyists for administration jobs, Obama has banned lobbyist membership on advisory panels and refused to accept campaign contributions from lobbyists or corporate political action committees. He also voluntarily discloses his top campaign bundlers, a step not taken so far by his Republican challengers.

But Obama has angered some good-government groups by opting out of the public financing system and continuing to accept donations from employees at lobbying firms who aren’t registered as lobbyists.

Each of Obama’s three State of the Union addresses has included proposals to rein in lobbyists. In 2010, he suggested limits on lobbyists’ campaign contributions and disclosures of their contacts with Congress. In 2011, he urged lawmakers to follow the White House’s lead and put information online about lobbying contacts with congressional offices.

Congress largely ignored those suggestions, and it’s not clear that Obama’s latest proposal — to ban lobbyist bundlers — will gain any traction in an election year.

Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for the nonprofit Public Citizen, praised Obama for proposing the ban, even if it has little chance of becoming law in the near term.

“If we are going to preserve the integrity of the legislative process, let alone the electoral process, lobbyists must be removed from campaign fundraising and bundling,” Holman said in an e-mail. “Obama has every appearance of being sincere about his policies designed to reduce the corrupting influence of hired guns. He is roundly condemned inside the Beltway for taking such positions.”

Lobbying dollars drop

While the influence of Washington lobbyists remains strong, the industry is shrinking for the first time in more than a decade, according to new estimates.

The Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics, says that trade associations, multinational corporations and other interest groups spent about $3.27 billion on lobbying last year, down from $3.51 billion in 2010.

After explosive growth beginning in the late 1990s, the official business of lobbying leveled off for several years, in part because of the economic downturn in 2008 and limits enacted by the Obama administration, experts say.

But 2011 marks the first year since 1999 that the industry has retrenched, as total dollars spent dropped about 7 percent.

Deputy Editor, National Politics
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