April 5, 2009

A big part of the reason that I voted for Obama during the primary was his idealistic pledge to be different from all the other politicians entrenched in the Washington system. I had been in DC long enough by that point to realize that most elected officials spend more time fundraising than they do governing or legislating. We all know how exciting Obama’s promise of change really was. But while I’m impressed with his term so far, working for lobbyists has made me realize that sometimes change brings problems of its own.

Case in point: President Obama’s directive about lobbyists and the stimulus package. Right now just about every interest in the country is jockeying for some funding from the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act. And that means that they’re employing lobbyists in Washington to help them keep track of funding opportunities and secure grants. Obama’s rule, in a nutshell, is that all communications from a federally registered lobbyist to the government, regarding a specific stimulus project or organization, have to be in writing.

What’s the problem? Well, first of all, it misses the point. The clients themselves have no such restriction. That means that an organization can set up meetings with government members themselves and lobby for stimulus money. Isn’t this the same thing? Obama’s rule is supposed to ensure that stimulus funds are awared on the basis of the project’s merit, but if an organization’s members can go into an office and give the exact same pitch that a lobbyist would, without having to put it in writing or post it online, how is the process any more transparent than before?

Second, there are Constitutional issues here. It’s one thing to put a limit on campaign contributions or put a ban on giving gifts to Members of Congress. I’m all for those things. But restricting the speech of a class of people sounds like the opposite of the First Amendment, doesn’t it?

There’s a good editorial about it here in the Washington Post.

Maybe I’m just becoming indoctrinated in the views of the Dark Side. But if I’ve learned anything this semester, it’s that lobbyists don’t act the way they’re depicted (and demonized) in the media. No one (at least, no one who’s not headed for jail) comes to a meeting on the Hill to advocate for a client with a check in their hand. The fact is that there are far more worthy projects out there than there is stimulus money available for them. So they hire lobbyists to go to Washington for them and convince the government of the merits of their cause. At least, until now.


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