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Success of President Obama's crackdown on lobbying questioned

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, February 14, 2010; A03

President Obama is escalating his war on K Street, proposing a series of tough restrictions a year after he first issued policies aimed at tamping down the influence of lobbyists.

But changing the way business is done in Washington is slow and difficult, underscored by the fact that spending on lobbying reached record levels last year despite the president's reforms and a down economy. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce spent $144 million on its lobbying efforts -- a 60 percent increase over 2008's expenditure -- leading industry opposition to health-care reform, financial regulations and climate legislation.

Although White House supporters say the number of registered lobbyists has declined, some public interest groups say that power has shifted to other Washington insiders and business executives, who do not have to register their activity.

Another blow to Obama's efforts came last month in a Supreme Court ruling that allows corporations and unions to spend unlimited funds on political campaigns, a decision likely to elevate the role of corporate lobbyists as shadow fundraisers, experts say.

The success of Obama's efforts are a subject of debate, with both sides pulling out evidence to make their case.

Last year, Obama barred registered lobbyists from political appointments and thousands of federal advisory boards, released monthly logs of White House visitors and banned spoken communication between outsiders and federal officials about stimulus contracts.

The president unveiled another round of proposals during his State of the Union address Jan. 27, including closing registration loopholes for part-time lobbyists, requiring public disclosure of all lobbying contacts with the government or Congress, and lowering the maximum amount of money that lobbyists can donate or raise for federal election candidates.

"We face a deficit of trust -- deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years," Obama said. "To close that credibility gap, we have to take action on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to end the outsized influence of lobbyists, to do our work openly, to give our people the government they deserve."

A recent report from four major advocacy groups praised Obama for the steps he's taken. "He's gone further than any other president has really done on ethics and lobbying reform," said Lisa Gilbert, democracy advocate for the U.S. Public Interest Research Group, one of the groups. "In general, early evidence suggests that some good has come of it."

The number of registered lobbyists has continued a decline that began after Congress passed lobbying reforms in 2007, which were co-sponsored by then-Sen. Obama. The number of registered Washington lobbyists now stands at a more than 13,000, the lowest number since 2004, according to disclosure records.

Norm Eisen, Obama's chief ethics counsel, said the decline is a clear vindication for the White House. "We think people are actually leaving the business," Eisen said in a recent interview. "We have bent the demand curve of the special interests. It's no longer acceptable for a lobbyist to come into your office and write the rules governing industry."

The administration's policies have outraged major lobbying firms on K Street, even though they have had an uncertain impact on their business: The Center for Responsive Politics reported last week that final lobbying expenditures last year reached $3.47 billion, a 5 percent increase from the $3.3 billion spent in 2008. The tally represents a lower rate of growth than in previous years, but disclosure records and interviews suggest that the slowdown was caused more by the economy than by new lobbying policies.

"I don't think it's materially weakened the lobbying profession, if that was the goal," said Doug Pinkham, president of the Public Affairs Council, which advises companies and nonprofit groups on lobbying and ethics. "The rules have had more unintended consequences than intended ones."

Some public-interest groups quarrel with the administration's fixation on lobbyists, saying that it allows those who do not register under federal lobbying disclosure rules to hold more sway in the process. Exhibit A for many critics is Tom Daschle, the powerful former Senate majority leader, who holds a top position at the lobbying firm Alston & Bird but avoids having to register. Federal rules do not require those who spend less than 20 percent of their time lobbying to register.

"To be blunt about it, any percentage that doesn't include Tom Daschle is not the right percentage," said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a group co-founded by Eisen. The restrictions have been well-intended but largely symbolic, Sloan added, and "it tells people you're fixing a problem without actually fixing it."

Dave Wenhold, president of the American League of Lobbyists, said the administration's preoccupation with targeting lobbyists has "driven people underground" and shifted power to chief executives and other executives who do not have to register their activity.

"All those people who de-registered didn't go back to Arkansas and give up lobbying to become farmers," Wenhold said. "While all these government watchdog groups are pandering to the White House, they've actually invited more big business to Washington."

The outlook for Obama's newest proposals is unclear. Unlike the administrative changes enacted during his first year, many of the new proposals require congressional action. Although top Democrats have vowed to respond to the Supreme Court ruling on corporate expenditures, the reaction to Obama's lobbying proposals has been muted.

A recent Pew Research Center poll ranked lobbying reforms as third from the bottom in voter concerns for this year. Many on both sides are skeptical that Obama will have much success pushing the issue.

"The big dogs will eat," said Dow Lohnes Government Strategies' president, Rick Kessler, a Democrat who added that he has mixed feelings about Obama's anti-lobbying efforts. "They will always find a way to fly their people in, to funnel their money in. It's smaller interests and nonprofits who are going to suffer and have a hard time."

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