Outside column: Sending lobbyists into exile

Posted: Sunday, April 05, 2009

Let me see if I have this straight: The Obama administration can talk to Iran and North Korea but not to lobbyists? It does not intend to review the interrogation practices of the previous administration but it will require all written communications from lobbyists to be posted on agency Web sites? It's dispensing with the term "enemy combatant" so as not to deprive individuals of access to the criminal justice system but those classified as "registered lobbyists" will be deprived of their right to petition their government?

Far from hyperbole, these conclusions are the clear message of a March 20 presidential directive specifying that lobbyists cannot be present at any meetings to discuss stimulus projects, that federal officials cannot consider the opinions of lobbyists unless those opinions are put in writing and that any such written opinions must be posted online.

Does anyone else detect a few inconsistencies? President Obama, a constitutional scholar and former head of the Harvard Law Review, has issued an edict barring behavior that appears to be protected by the Bill of Rights. Beyond that, the order, by its own terms, exempts lobbyists who handle tax matters. Are they less evil than the rest of us? And why should, say, General Electric chief executive Jeffrey Immelt be permitted to visit the Energy Department to talk about some federal grant in support of a "smart grid" project while the head of his Washington office has to wait in the car?

The president's repeated verbal, and now legal, castigation of the lobbying community suggests that either he does not understand the role played by lobbyists, or he understands but is demonizing us for political purposes. Yet I am certain that the man for whom I voted (twice) is too smart to fall prey to the former and too noble to yield to the latter.

Lobbyists form a bridge between government and business. In that way we are to the executive and legislative branches what lawyers are to the judicial branch. (Yes, I hear the snickers, but desperate times call for desperate analogies.)

I spent 12 years on Capitol Hill, where as staff director I ran a prominent Senate committee. I am proud of that service. Since then I have been a registered lobbyist. Arguably, I have contributed more to public policy from the private sector than I did from the public side. That is not because I was an inept public servant, or because I am now "peddling influence" or lavishing campaign dollars upon the system. It is because exposure to the private sector has given me insight and perspective I could never have developed as a Senate employee. That knowledge has dovetailed with what I learned on the Hill to make me a useful channel of communication between two worlds that have only the weakest understanding of each other.

Yes, I periodically use that insight to educate - and perhaps influence - members of Congress and their staffs. But far more often, my educational effort and my advocacy are aimed at my clients. For as badly as government understands business, business understands government even less. If we are to have any chance of confronting the challenges facing our country, including restoring the economy, reforming health care, modernizing energy policy and protecting the environment, business and government have to work together. Their ability to do so will be impaired if the agents of the business community are confined to a figurative internment camp.

I admit that the system has produced its share of villains, including several now living in federal penitentiaries. But for each headline-grabbing transgressor the system has produced, it has also produced a thousand knowledgeable, dedicated, hardworking individuals who help our society to function. That they might do so using the tool of advocacy should not disqualify them, for every voice heard in Washington is one of advocacy. The fact that these individuals have registered as lobbyists, as the law requires, should not brand them as untouchables.

The president for whom I voted knows this. He is intellectually honest, forward-looking and able to compromise. He repeatedly expresses a desire to work with all parties to enhance our domestic well-being and to restore our international image. He eschews the politics of the past, including the use of wedge issues and cheap political scapegoating. That president should not have to go home at night and defend his profession to his family. He should not make me go home each night having to do so with mine.

• The writer, a lawyer and registered lobbyist, served as staff director of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee from 1986 to 1990.



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