Wednesday, Feb. 4 at 1 p.m. ET

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Ruth Marcus
Washington Post Columnist
Wednesday, February 4, 2009; 1:00 PM

Washington Post opinion columnist Ruth Marcus was online Wednesday, Feb. 4 at 1 p.m. ET to discuss the demonization of Washington lobbyists, her recent columns, her posts on the Post Partisan blog and the latest news.

The transcript follows.

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Oviedo, Fla.: You took a beating for your advocacy of "Princess Caroline" as a U.S. Senator. What is your take now -- was she beaten down by the bad rollout or just caught over-reaching? Is the current wave of hostility against entitled establishment faces for real or just a facade in the quest for "change?"

washingtonpost.com: Beyond Senator Caroline (Dec. 12, 2008)

Ruth Marcus: Hi. I certainly did take a beating on that one. I thought her rollout was terrible, she was disserved by advisors and, frankly, by her own performance. And I think she was also the victim of a new, antidynastic mindset that will probably ebb some, post Bush, post Clinton, but is still real.

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Moorpark, Calif.: Is is just possible that some key members of the House and Senate have some tax irregularities of their own that have yet to be revealed? I cannot believe that only Daschle, Killefer and Geithner have to face the reality of taxes owed and unpaid. Perhaps Leona Helmsley had it right when she said "only the little people pay taxes."

Ruth Marcus: I suspect that many members of Congress, not to mention many of the rest of us, would not fare terribly well in a vetting.

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West Falls Church: With the recent goofups with cabinet nominations, would we call this, as Biden has said "on the job training?"

Ruth Marcus: Every president gets on the job training. Every administration stumbles at the start, in some way. I wouldn't overblow this too much.

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Louisville, Ky.: I have heard talk about a 4 percent fixed mortgage rate as a way to help existing homeowners who are strapped. I would jump at this as would millions of others. This would save hundreds of dollars each month for me and allow me to spend or save it elsewhere. I voted for Obama and was surprised to hear Republicans champion this yesterday. Doesn't this seem like one strategy that everyone could support? Is this held up with something? Do you see this as helpful for millions of people? Why are we waiting?

Ruth Marcus: I'm not terribly familiar with the proposal, have talked to a few people about it, but it's not clear exactly how it would be administered or financed. Right now it sounds like more of a thing that sounds great to everyone but remains to be truly fleshed out.

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Atlanta: re your column:

No politicians wouldn't have to spend so much time worrying about being re-elected and raising money for said re-election (as you mentioned, given to them by lobbyists), if we looked at public service as something everyone should do for a short period of time - and didn't treat it as a money making machine.

The real problem in all of this is US. We keep re-electing the same people who do the same things - then we complain about it. We've become complacent - not even realizing how many laws are in place to keep the same people in office (check out the law about writing in a name for an election in Georgia - or how many candidates run unopposed because no one can get on the ballot - or things are gerrymandered in such a way that no one else can win). We keep doing the same things - and expecting different results. Why do we think we got here in the first place? Because of the people in Washington. What we're doing isn't working.

Ruth Marcus: I'm not sure I totally follow this--you want people to spend less time in public service so they go through the revolving door more quickly? I see more of a value than you do in having experienced, committed legislators on the job. But I agree that the entrenched power of incumbency--which is, by the way, abetted by the existing campaign finance system--is a problem.

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New York: I could care less about Daschle, who is a sleazy lobbyist in all but title, but this Killefer woman's withdrawal over a $500 tax lien demonstrates conclusively how dishonest and worthless our Washington opinion makers are. Where was the outrage when Bush took millions from the crooks of Enron? When the FDA was turned into a criminal enterprise, and FEMA into a dumping ground for incompetent hacks? When Cheney conspired in secrecy with corporate crooks to design this disastrous energy policy? When Bush lied us into war? How about a president with a criminal felony conviction, by the way! This is our Ground Hog Press: our guardians of public morality fall asleep for eight years, and awaken when a Democrat is inaugurated. What person over six years old sees the logic in dwelling on minor technical departures from high standards, and saying nothing about leaders who immerse themselves in dishonesty and sleeze as a matter of policy?

Ruth Marcus: Sorry, I think you're forgetting a huge amount of important reporting and critical commentary about the Bush administration over the last eight years. It feels different when the shoe is on the Demoratic foot but, really, not like there's been a silent, complaisant press.

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Centreville, Va.: How touching that the Republicans and the press are concerned again with ethics in government and are eager to restart the "blame game." While I agree with President Obama's concern that there not be two sets of standards, one for prominent people and one for ordinary people, I'm afraid that boat sailed long ago. Until we see prosecutions of Bush administration officials, high and low, for their lawbreaking, I'm teaching my children that, in America, if you're connected you're protected, and if you're not you'll rot (in jail). Why, for example, is a known lawbreaker such as Bradley Schlozman in DOJ not being prosecuted?

Ruth Marcus: Very sad you feel that way and tell your children that, I think. I can't share your level of cynicism. The Justice Department inspector general referred Schlozman for prosecution, the U.S. Attorney declined to prosecute, but I believe that the new attorney general has said he is going to tae another look at the case. These false statements/perjury cases are hard to make, but I am not convinced (yet) that the system failed here.

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Geithner, Daschle, Killefer: I was surprised you were so quick to jump on the sexism bandwagon when analyzing Obama appointments. Personally, I think Geithner should have had his nomination derailed, too, but since he was the first he was the mulligan for Obama.

Did you have the same reaction when our Congressional delegate, Eleanor Holmes Norton, blamed her husband for the couple's tax problems in the 1990s? While I love her voice and passion, Holmes's claim to know nothing about the problem fell on deaf ears to me.

Shouldn't a Member of Congress be more attuned to personal finances? Or since she blamed her husband did you just accept her explanation?

Ruth Marcus: I was not writing about Holmes Norton at the time but I believe our editorial page withdrew its endorsement of her as a result of those problems. More fundamentally, I don't think I jumped on the sexism bandwagon, in any way. Had Kellifer gone down and Daschle survived, there would have been a question of double standards, but I think the standard has more to do with the issue of who's got connections and longstanding support on the hill than who's got what chromosomes.

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Chesapeake Beach, MD: "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."

What lobbyists do is ensure that legislators hear money talking far more loudly than they hear the needs of the people.

This is doubly reinforced: first, you need to have money to employ an effective lobbyist; and second, most who hire lobbyists can afford to do so because they can expect a very good return on investment: the lobbyist is going to put far more money in their pocket in the benefits of rigging legislation than he will take out in salary.

Sure, even rich corporations have the right to petition Congress. But the ability to hire a lobbyist - or an army of lobbyists - to do it for you, ensures that the corporation's voice will be heard far more loudly than those of us who take the energy to periodically call or write our Congresscritters.

If lobbyists didn't exist, the world would be far from perfect, but the balance between the influence of great wealth and the influence of the citizenry would be at least somewhat better than it is now.

Ruth Marcus: I think it's more complicated. Leaving aside the nicety of constitutional protections for petitioning government, many, many of the issues that lobbyists weigh in on are pitting one well-representated set of interests against another, not drowning out unrepresented voices. Yes, there are certainly times when the ability to hire a high-priced lobbyists gives one side an advantage over the other, but that advantage would be significantly diminished if lawmakers did not have to rely on the lobbyists or the interests they represent for the cash they need to run for reelection. Hence my view of lobbyists as the symptom, not the cause of the problem.

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Saudi Arabia: I suggest not to accept any lobby whatsoever, neither in the house of Senate nor in the Congress. I feel that President Obama is not that person who accept such talk or advise from any lobby which is not in the interest of the US Nation. Lobbies must be ignored and have to abide by the US constitution and the laws of the country. No one should be beyond the law!

Ruth Marcus: The Constitution protects the rights of the people to petition the government for redress of grievances. In other words: to lobby.

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McLean, Va.: Since both Pelosi and Boxer want Gitmo closed, when will we hear from them that they are willing to receive those terrorist operatives into San Francisco? I think there's plenty of room in the Napa Valley to build a huge fort to house them.

Ruth Marcus: The suggestion I heard was Alcatraz. I seem to be disagreeing with everyone today, but I've got to disagree here. We have all sorts of secure facilities in this country who hold all sorts of dangerous people, including people who have terrorist sympathizers, and we seem to have dealt with them just fine. Certainly, there is a NIMBY syndrome, but it doesn't seem very rational to me--and the least of the how to close Guantanamo complications.

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Re: the anti-dynasty atmosphere: Ruth, in the case of Caroline Kennedy and her kin, I think it's more nuanced than that. The Kennedys have put forth a number of family members to either run for public office or play some other role in public life and most of them have been very unimpressive. I look at Kathleen Kennedy Townsend in Maryland. She was a terrible, terrible campaigner, to the point that my 80-year old mother, who worshipped JFK, didn't even vote for her. People aren't just reluctant to extend a dynasty, they're reluctant to extend that power to people whose qualification appears to be their last name.

Ruth Marcus: Maybe, but the deluge of anti-Caroline messages I got did not focus on the relative (pardon the pun) merits of her relatives vs. members of other dynasties, just on dynasties in general (or, more commonly, her failure to punch her own ticket by coming up through the ranks, being elected, etc.)

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Ruth Marcus: The Constitution protects the rights of the people to petition the government for redress of grievances. In other words: to lobby: Why is it that when you put it that way, it sounds reasonable and forthright, but when I hear the word "lobbyist," I immediately think of behind-the-scene, underhanded, money-and-influence peddling, secrecy-above-all, them-and-their-paymasters-first-and-American-public-be-damned evildoers (to borrow a term from President Bush)?

Ruth Marcus: Because the reality is somewhere in between those two extremes.

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Re: Tax-Issues: As a lawyer, I know that many professionals have duties to their clients' particular interests that may not be well-served later on. Isn't the issue with Daschel that his accountant's job was to have him pay the least taxes possible, and make it legal, in that order?

Ruth Marcus: Not at all. I think he was very very poorly served by his accountant (see, e.g., the medicare tax he failed to pay even after he realized that the car and driver were taxable) but the accountant's job is to protect the client, not to get the taxes down to the lowest possible amount. Especially for a client in the public eye, you want your accountant to be as conservative as possible so you don't run into these problems.

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Re: The Blame Game: How much of the Republicans' 'outrage' because they see the light of reform versus they are the minority party? Same for their embrace of 'fiscal restraint'?

Ruth Marcus: Don't think you need my wisdom, or lack thereof, to know the answer to that question! Where was the concern about deficits, fiscal restraint for the last eight years?

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Get real, Ruth: The only political leaders you folks in the media ever want to see pay a price for wrongdoing are those who get caught in titillating sex scandals (Bill Clinton, Eliot Spitzer) or other fun and tawdry episodes that are easy and entertaining to report (Rod Blagojevich, Duke Cunningham). You firmly believe (and write!) that actual abuse of power and the commission of true felonies should be ignored and forgotten when committed by the Serious and Powerful leaders of the royal court you apparently think you serve.

Ruth Marcus: Sorry, but that's ridiculous. Personally, I hope I never have to cover another sex scandal in my life. But "royal court"?--what, we just serve Bush & Co. in your view and then switch to Obama? I just don't think that every bad action is the proper subject for criminal prosecution.

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Pittsburgh: Not all lobbyists are created equal, in my opinion. Seems unfair that the lobbyist for an admirable group like Tobacco-Free Kids shouldn't be treated the same as, say, one for the tobacco industry.

Ruth Marcus: I agree, but the line drawing ends up getting awfully tricky, to separate out the "good" from the "bad" lobbyists.

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Silver Spring, Md.: Ruth, how could Obama let the Republicans seize the stimulus package like they have? Is it inexperience?

Ruth Marcus: This is a great question. I would rephrase it though. He let the Republicans seize on the stimulus package. He let the House Democrats seize it, by not objecting to a lot of stuff that Nancy Pelosi and David Obey, the chair of the appropriations committee, threw in there. There are lots of explanations for that, chief among them that the package was being written before Obama even was sworn in and had the machinery of government at his disposal. But I think it was an error, and I think it's important for him now to seize control back from his supposed "friends" in his party.

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Why?: President Obama has made extraordinary efforts to reach out to Republicans. He has the largest number of Republicans of a Democratic administration in history. He has made unprecedented steps of addressing Republican caucuses. So, why are the Republicans treating him with such disdain and hate?

Ruth Marcus: Depends on which Republicans you're talking about. I think the congressional Republicans are not falling in line the way Obama might want, but at the same time they are being rather appreciative of his outreach and pretty restrained in their tone. They have different views than the president and the Democrats about the role of government in general and what the stimulus package should look like in particular; it's not their job to toss those aside because the president gave them a drink. Rush Limbaugh--that's totally different, and, I think, outrageous for him to say he hopes that Obama fails.

And for his part, while the president deserves enormous credit for reaching out to Republicans, there are clearly limits to what he is willing to do to woo them/bring them on board. The children's health insurance bill is a prime example--the new version was done over the objections of two of its most fervent Republican supporters, Sens. Hatch and Grassley. The outcome might be the right one (children of legal immigrants get coverage they would not have otherwise) but it illustrates the limits of the president's understanding of bipartisanship also.

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Reston, Va.: Ms. Marcus, Your defense of the corrupt individuals that have nearly destroyed our system of government makes one realize that you must have a financial interest in protecting them. Why don't you just admit it and start your own lobby (bribery) business? Disgusted with all of you.

Ruth Marcus: Sorry you're disgusted. If my chief interest in life was making money, I'd be practicing law. And my husband would not be working for government. One thing that drives me crazy in the public discourse is the leap to assume bad and even corrupt motives on the part of the people we disagree with, rather than simple disagreement.

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Helena, Mont.: On lobbying - I don't really mind lobbyists, I agree they serve a constitutional purpose of "petitioning the government." But I do think there should be a lot more transparency than there is when these lobbyists "petition the government." Here in Montana, the governor has an open door policy - if he's meeting with a lobbyist, anybody else is free to be at the meeting. Reporters take advantage of that - as they should. I think our Congress and President should take something from that as well. Could be the best of both worlds - someone who does petition our government, but at the same time we know what is going on.

Ruth Marcus: Very good point. One provision that we spent a lot of time championing (and that Sen. Obama pushed for) was transparency about the amount of money that lobbyists raise for lawmakers--i.e. bundling.

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To McLean re Gitmo prisoners to California: There's a super-max prison at Pelican Bay, in the northwestern most corner of California that would work well.

Ruth Marcus: Noted.

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Washington DC: I was a bit confused by your article this morning. Daschle was not hired to to give advice to his employers he was hired because of the connections, that he made as a politician, out side of the firm. That is the issue. Anyone can come to Washington and lobby that how a representative government works. The issue is how those that have special knowledge and access they gained as "public servants" use those privileged contacts.

Ruth Marcus: I agree. My point was that our precise focus on 'lobbyists' did not get to the root of the problem, given that Daschle, among many others, did not actually have to register and would not be covered by the president's prohibitions.

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Re. Investigations & cynicism: Ruth, y'all in the media are what's turning all of us into cynics! The national news media was obsessive in pursuing all manner of (bogus) allegations against Bill Clinton, not only those involving sex. The media's obsequiousness towards power has, in recent years, been quite a bit more thorough when the power in question is held by Republicans. And that's why I think you and your cohorts are so against investigating the Bush Administration for their crimes. And exactly the reason why so many of us are so cynical, these days.

Ruth Marcus: Wish we had a representative of the Bush administration here to talk about how gently they think they were treated by the media in general and The Washington Post in particular. And how biased we were against the Democratic candidate.

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Malia and Sasha dolls?: Since you're a lawyer, perhaps you can answer the question of whether President and Mrs. Obama have a legal right to prevent manufacturers from making and selling dolls modeled on their daughters. After all, by their deciding that he would run for president, didn't he automatically default the girls' claim to be private figures?

Ruth Marcus: I think--although I confess that the last time I studied this was many, many years ago--that even a public figure (and I'm not sure how the Obama children would be treated) retain a kind of right in their image/likeness, etc. Not sure that you could sustain a lawsuit over the dolls, which were supposedly not modeled on the Obama girls (right!) but it looks like the court of public opinion took care of that one, since Ty has said it will stopped manufacturing them.

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It's not the lobbying . . . : It's the campaign contributions made to politicians and political parties by the lobbyists. How can these interactions be viewed as anything but ethically compromised? That's the problem - you need to be rich or have rich friends to get elected. Sometimes those rich friends have their own agendas.

Ruth Marcus: Yes, that's what I was trying to say. Public financing would alleviate much of the problem here.

Ruth Marcus: Ruth Marcus: Yes, that's what I was trying to say. Public financing would alleviate much of the problem here.

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DC: You are right, Ms. Marcus, it does feel different.

While I am not some pollyanna, I do have a renewed sense that there is at least some honesty in my White House. Obama messed up with Daschle, and I really wished he hadn't stood by him so strongly. But now, in the aftermath, he owns it. To me, it does feel different. People in the media (cable, radio, print) can continue to hate on him and try to derail things, but here is one person (and I know plenty of others) that are so grateful to have an honest, open, real human being down there on Penn Ave.

Ruth Marcus: I think it is different, certainly from the Bush administration, in terms of the rules that the administration is applying to itself. (And these rules are stricter than Clinton's, also.) The question is whether the focus should be on the exceptions to the lobbying rules (e.g. Lynn, the Raytheon lobbyist turned deputy defense secretary) or the general sweep of them. I understand the instint to focus on the exceptions and yell hypocrisy but I think the reality is that Obama is trying to change.

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Re. Investigations & cynicism: Ruth, y'all in the media are what's turning all of us into cynics! The national news media was obsessive in pursuing all manner of (bogus) allegations against Bill Clinton, not only those involving sex. The media's obsequiousness towards power has, in recent years, been quite a bit more thorough when the power in question is held by Republicans. And that's why I think you and your cohorts are so against investigating the Bush Administration for their crimes. And exactly the reason why so many of us are so cynical, these days.

Ruth Marcus: Wish we had a representative of the Bush administration here to talk about how gently they think they were treated by the media in general and The Washington Post in particular. And how biased we were against the Democratic candidate.

Ruth Marcus: Ruth Marcus: Wish we had a representative of the Bush administration here to talk about how gently they think they were treated by the media in general and The Washington Post in particular. And how biased we were against the Democratic candidate.

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Washington DC: You missed Get Real's point. The issue that was raised is compare the WP or any other major media coverage of serious allegations of war crimes and violations of international treaties on treatment of prisoners versus that on nominees taxes filings. When there are as many column inches about whether or not Cheney should be tried as about Daschle's taxes then we can get serious.

Ruth Marcus: Well, I'd suggest adding up the column inches on the editorial page opposing the Bush administration's position on torture, for example, vs. Daschle's foibles. It won't be even close.

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Ruth Marcus: Ok, everyone, that was bracing! Nice to chat, let's see what the next two weeks bring...Ruth

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