Lobbying's Good Guys? On the Campaign Trail, They're Invisible.

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, June 10, 2008

Lobbyists have been pariahs for nearly a century -- at least to presidential candidates.

Woodrow Wilson started the trend. Before he ran for president in 1912, Wilson was a scholar of factional politics at Princeton University. He won the White House in part by attacking the object of his expertise. Many presidential wannabes since then have followed Wilson's lead and lambasted "special interests" as a way of demonstrating how much they care about the rest of us.

This year's vitriol against lobbyists by Sens. John McCain and Barack Obama, therefore, is not new. But it is different in one respect. It is, more than in the past, indiscriminate. The candidates go after anyone who registers to lobby in Washington, without regard to who or what the lobbyist represents.

And that has rankled in the nation's capital. After all, is every lobbyist the same?

Wilson and other lobbyist-bashers of the past made a distinction between the corporate lobbyists they disdained and other, more sympathetic petitioners of government.

But Obama doesn't permit any kind of federally registered lobbyists to give money to his campaign or to the Democratic National Committee. McCain has forced lobbyists to leave his staff and has required lobbyist volunteers to stay away from his offices and disclose their clients to the campaign.

Those kinds of actions and the candidates' harsh words about lobbyists annoy Wayne Pacelle, president of the Humane Society of the United States.

"All lobbyists are not the same," he said. "While special interest lobbyists outnumber socially responsible lobbyists by a major factor, there are many lobbyists who do remarkable work for the public good."

To think and say otherwise, he added, is "typical campaign demagoguery."

Gary D. Bass, president of OMB Watch, a nonprofit group that pushes for government accountability, agrees that public interest lobbyists are being unfairly besmirched. Why should groups that try to eradicate disease or protect animals be attacked as, essentially, un-American?

"It's an honorable tradition and something that's essential to the fabric of our democracy," Bass said. "The real problem that needs to be discussed here is the influence of money, not lobbying."

Sister Simone Campbell also thinks the attacks are misguided. She is a registered lobbyist for -- and executive director of -- Network, an advocacy group founded in 1971 by 47 Roman Catholic nuns. She and her colleagues lobby for humanitarian causes -- improved conditions for immigrants and reconstruction of Iraq.

But unlike Pacelle and Bass, she is not distressed by the candidates' comments and policies. She's grown accustomed to the nastiness that surrounds her profession.

"I have a tough skin," she said. "If I took offense, I couldn't do this job."

Besides, she said, lobbyists are easy targets, especially in the simplistic world of presidential rhetoric. "Politics is like coloring books," she explained. "The reality is much more complex."

Many lobbyists for causes less altruistic than Campbell's feel exactly the same way. They like to point out that the First Amendment protects the right to lobby for any interest, including the corporate type.

That won't make lobbyists likable, of course. But, nonprofit advocates ask, is it too much to expect a presidential candidate to recognize the difference between a white hat and a black one?

Fight Over Pan Am 103

The State Department has opened negotiations with the government of Libya to settle a variety of claims, including those lodged by the families of Pan Am Flight 103, the flight bombed by terrorists nearly 20 years ago, claiming the lives of 189 Americans.

Remarkably, the Libyans still owe each family $2 million of the $10 million they promised in compensation for the horrific attack.

The families' cause is represented in Washington by the lobbying firm Quinn Gillespie & Associates, which is headed by former Clinton administration official Jack Quinn. The firm stands to be paid what amounts to a standard lobbying fee, which can amount to more than $300,000 a year, if the Libyans pony up. To that end, it has been bringing victims' family members to town to plead for justice, including, recently, Kara Weipz of Cherry Hill, N.J., whose 20-year-old brother, Richard Monetti, was killed as he was traveling home for Christmas from a semester of study abroad.

Libya also has an active lobbyist. The Livingston Group recently signed an eye-popping $2.4 million contract to represent the government here. But Robert L. Livingston, the firm's co-founder, is not resisting the victims' pleas.

In fact, quite the contrary.

"We don't have anything to do with the cases; we're working on trying to enhance the relations between Libya and the U.S.," he said. "But it's my hope and anticipation that those cases would be settled in the not-too-distant future."

Why? "Settlement of those claims would certainly enhance the relationship between those countries." We'll see.

Promotion of the Week

Washington, as they say, is a transient city. Few people stay in one place very long.

But not Jason Smith. He remained in the same job and managed to move ahead.

Smith, 40, has worked at Widmeyer Communications, a public relations firm, for 12 years. The other day he was elevated to partner.

An education expert, Smith has helped out with the "Stop Bullying Now!" campaign for the Department of Health and Human Services and the recently released final report of the National Math Panel. His other clients have included Pearson Education, the American Museum of Natural History, the Carnegie Corporation of New York and Fannie Mae.

"I am sitting in the same office I was in as a mid-level staffer in 1999," he said.

But he doesn't mind a bit. "I just love the work," he said. Sometimes that's enough.

Hire of the Week

Fred Downey, a former U.S. Army strategist and longtime military and international affairs staffer on Capitol Hill, is joining the Aerospace Industries Association as vice president of national security.

Downey, 60, comes to the lobby for defense contractors from the office of Sen. Joseph I. Lieberman (I-Conn.), where he was a legislative aide for a dozen years.

In his new job, Downey will oversee policy development and lobbying for military and technical operations. His division runs, among other things, the Team America Rocketry Challenge, the world's largest rocket contest, which gets students in middle and high school to design and build rockets.

The association has five other vice presidents with responsibility for space, civil aviation, procurement and finance, supplier management, and legislative affairs.

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