Lobbying

How to Get Into the White House: Bring a Lobbyist

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Want a meeting at the White House? Find a lobbyist. Better yet, be one.

The Washington Post mines the Obama White House's visitor logs with predictable results:

The visitor logs for Jan. 17 — one of the most recent days available — show that the lobbying industry Obama has vowed to constrain is a regular presence at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. The records also suggest that lobbyists with personal connections to the White House enjoy the easiest access.

More than any president before him, Obama pledged to change the political culture that has fueled the influence of lobbyists. He barred recent lobbyists from joining his administration and banned them from advisory boards throughout the executive branch. The president went so far as to forbid what had been staples of political interaction — federal employees could no longer accept free admission to receptions and conferences sponsored by lobbying groups.

"A lot of folks," Obama said last month, "see the amounts of money that are being spent and the special interests that dominate and the lobbyists that always have access, and they say to themselves, maybe I don't count."

The White House visitor records make it clear that Obama's senior officials are granting that access to some of K Street's most influential representatives. In many cases, those lobbyists have long-standing connections to the president or his aides. Republican lobbyists coming to visit are rare, while Democratic lobbyists are common, whether they are representing corporate clients or liberal causes.

Lobbyists, it turns out, aren't merely regular visitors to the court. They are also its gatekeepers:

Andrew Menter, the chief executive of Vivature Health, said that Downey helped set up a meeting for him in December 2010 with Michael Hash, a top health-policy official. The group discussed how the new health-care law might affect Menter's business, a Texas-based company that provides billing services for college health programs.

"The whole process was interesting for me. It's a little scary," Menter said. "You need a lobbyist to get a meeting."

Is it any surprise that an administration which presided over wholesale regulatory overhauls of multiple major sectors of the economy, that allowed budgets for regulatory agencies grow by 16 percent and employment at those agencies grow by 13 percent to some 281,000 souls, that added regulations to the books costing businesses more than $46 billion each and every year — in addition to $11 billion in start-up costs — would also be so close with the professional influence peddlers it claims to despise? Indeed, in the Obama White House lobbyists are not only guests, they are part of the president's team: Despite Obama's promise to employ no lobbyists, the administration has, by Washington Examiner columnist Timothy Carney's count, hired at least 50. Under Obama's watch, the executive branch has crafted 95 percent as many rules as Bush — and the overall cost has been greater. 

The consequences of this approach — decrying lobbying on the one hand while making their influence more valuable on the other — are all too clear clear. Rules and regulations empower lobbyists by making access and influence more valuable: The more a business' interests are tied up in regulatory minutiae, and the more regulations cost any given industry, the more those industries will invest in influencing the rule makers. Inevitably, that means special treatment for the administration's friends and allies, a preference for those it knows and likes over those it doesn't. Want to reduce the value and influence of corporate lobbying on government? Reduce the influence of government on the private sector. 

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