There is a largely misguided effort underway to add to the growing list of scandals in Washington. I’m referring specifically to the idea that companies, Hill staffers and other government officials may have run afoul of the law by seeking out and then sharing “political intelligence” – whatever that is.
The Post’s Tom Hamburger wrote a news article this weekend highlighting the rise in these so-called “political intelligence firms.” Mr. Hamburger’s story focused in particular on former White House officials Elizabeth Fowler and Andrew Shin, both of whom participated in calls and meetings with representatives of America’s financial services industry while they were at the White House, and who are now facing scrutiny for what they might have told these executives.
The Washington Post revealed that Obama White House official Elizabeth Fowler “met with executives from half a dozen investment firms in 2011 and 2012.” Well, of course she did. I’m not looking to do the Obama administration any favors, but I don’t think Ms. Fowler and others have done anything wrong. I’ve been a lobbyist by trade for more than 20 years, and I’ll let you in on one of Washington’s dirty little secrets: If you are a legitimate entity with a serious issue or concern in Washington and you need to share information with policy-makers, the policy-makers will meet with you. Good policy-makers want to meet with all the affected parties. They want to hear what particular groups think the consequences of their actions – intended or otherwise – might be.
Politics still matters. Some insiders may be able to get a quicker meeting with a friendlier disposition, but for the most part, people in government want to do a good job and that includes meeting with just about anybody who has something sensible to say or who has information that might be useful. Politics can get you additional courtesy meetings with more-senior officials who may be able to impact the matter at hand.
To the best of my knowledge, my firm has never been part of the “political intelligence” business that the beltway is buzzing about. Maybe I should hide that fact since I don’t want to miss a wave of new business. And, I don’t want to diminish my self-promoted claim as a Washington business-know-it-all, but, based on what I do know about investing and policy-making in Washington, I would be terrified at the notion of having to supply information that other people would then try to use to reliably and consistently bet other people’s money.
Obviously, it would be wrong to try to manipulate the markets for selfish reasons — or for any reason, for that matter — but there are already laws to punish those who would do such a thing. The type of meetings that Ms. Fowler held are a necessary and important part of many jobs in Washington, including hers. She was right to engage with these executives. It is of vital importance to the economy that companies such as T. Rowe Price gain and share insight about government policy. After all, T. Rowe Price alone manages $617.4 billion in assets, representing many thousands of small investors. I hope all the news coverage and faux surprise that has risen over the development of the “political intelligence” business doesn’t chill the outreach and communication that needs to occur between the government and the governed.
Anyway, the arrogance of the Obama administration is what caused much of this problem to arise in the first place. President Obama has perpetrated a phony, bogus world in which lobbyists aren’t supposed to meet with policy-makers except when they do (I’ve never noticed any discernible pattern), or they can meet if a lobbyist has decided not to properly register. This administration essentially has created a black market for information. People either simply don’t register and count on the Department of Justice to look the other way, or they think their stature in town, usually a result of having previously held senior positions in government, makes them immune from the registration requirements of lesser folks. And many lobbyists in town just hide behind the title of “strategic adviser” to avoid being labeled as lobbyists. Colleagues will be mad at me for saying so, even within my own firm, but this is just another example of the hypocrisy of this White House and of Democrats in D.C. generally.