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The Scarlet Lobbyist

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By Ruth Marcus
Wednesday, February 4, 2009

Lobbyists are the Hester Prynnes of Barack Obama's Washington, scorned for the sins of a complicit city.

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One member of this reviled class, Heather Podesta, went so far as to distribute brocade patches embroidered with a scarlet "L" to her fellow lobbyists at the Democratic National Convention -- a literary jab at the Obama campaign's refusal to accept lobbyists' cash.

There were so many takers that she ran out. No surprise there, if you've ever been to a party convention.

Now, making good on his campaign promises, President Obama has issued stringent rules to limit lobbyists' involvement with his administration.

Under the Obama plan, those who have been registered lobbyists within the past two years cannot -- not without a waiver, anyway -- take an administration job in their area of expertise. Those who join the administration and then leave are barred from lobbying it for the duration of Obama's presidency -- not just their former departments but the entire administration.

I support this strict regime, but with misgivings. The ugly excesses and outright criminality exposed by the Jack Abramoff scandal 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."

Indeed, just last week, one of Abramoff's underlings, Todd Boulanger, pleaded guilty to plying Capitol Hill aides with tens of thousands of dollars in perks. One all-expenses-paid New York jaunt featured World Series tickets and "admission to and entertainment at a gentleman's club." A Senate staffer received "more than $25,000 worth of tickets, meals and drinks" -- all while performing favors for Boulanger's clients.

Still, the Abramoffs and Boulangers are the outliers of the lobbying world. The criminal corruption they embody is eclipsed by the legalized corruption inherent in a system in which elected officials must worry from the moment of victory about raising enough cash to finance the next campaign. Lobbyists, with their capacity to bring in bundles of checks, are a symptom of the problem, not its cause.

Lost in the popular vision of martini-swilling lobbyists is the reality that, in a government grown so sprawling, lobbyists perform an indispensable mediating function, simultaneously translating the legitimate needs of the clients they represent to policymakers and vice versa.

Certainly, some would-be lobbyists see a government job as a ticket-punching stop on the way to riches on K Street; some current lobbyists see a stint in government as a way to enhance their billables on the other side of the revolving door. But Washington right now is full of people with seven-figure salaries elbowing to get administration jobs that pay a fraction of that. Most, I'd guess, aren't scheming to get rich later but are yearning to be inside the room, not lingering outside.

Hence, my misgivings about Obama's lobbying rules. The rules treat all lobbyists as equally reprehensible; they make no distinctions based on the nature of the lobbying client. Obama's rule-writers considered separating "good" lobbyists from "bad," but concluded that was an impossible task.

So an environmental activist who has lobbied in favor of stricter rules is as disqualified for a job at the Environmental Protection Agency as is a lobbyist for the most heinous polluter. Meanwhile, the top lobbyist for a major defense contractor gets an exemption to be deputy defense secretary. It made sense to build some flexibility into the rules, but it also guaranteed that Obama would open himself to charges of hypocrisy with every waiver.

And because the existing rules on lobbying registration are so porous, Obama's edict did not cover people such as Tom Daschle, the now-withdrawn choice as secretary of health and human services. Although he made millions as a "policy adviser" to the kind of clients that candidate Obama decried as special interests, Daschle took care never to cross the line that would turn him into a lobbyist. Unfortunately, he was sloppier about his taxes. This is a town that distinguishes between "lobbying activities" that don't require registration and "lobbying contacts" that do.

Hawthorne would have loved Washington. Early in "The Scarlet Letter," Hester Prynne stands in shame upon the town scaffold, cradling her illegitimate child. Prynne, one of the townspeople observes, "hath raised a great scandal . . . in godly Master Dimmesdale's church."

Godly Rev. Dimmesdale was, of course, the child's father. As with Puritan New England, it is in the nature of Washington to punish its Prynnes even as it remains, or pretends to be, oblivious to the Dimmesdales all around.

marcusr@washpost.com


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