With Lobbyist Donors, Obama Lets Himself Off on a Technicality

Obama Lobbying Talking Points Help Undermine System

“Obama will not take money from registered lobbyists like me, but that doesn’t mean that he won’t take money from people who are lobbying…”

-- An unnamed Democratic lobbyist talking to the New York Times about President Obama’s reliance on unregistered Washington influence peddlers to fund his campaign.

One of the places where Barack Obama scored big points on John McCain in 2008 was in casting himself as a squeaky-clean outsider and McCain as a Washington swamp-dweller surrounded by lobbyists.

"They will not work in my White House," Obama often intoned of lobbyists. But, over time, dozens of former lobbyists came to work for the administration. As Washington Examiner lobbyist lacerator Tim Carney observed, this prompted Obama to adopt a new phrasing of the old pledge: "We've excluded lobbyists from policymaking jobs."

More On This...

What Obama meant was that he had turned away many lobbyists, but that becomes clear only after parsing the phrase. He didn’t say “all” or “every,” so the statement was technically true, if very misleading.

And so it is with Obama fundraising. The Obama campaign has long touted the fact that registered lobbyists are not permitted to give money to the campaign or bring their besmirching presence to any of the commander in chief’s frequent fundraisers.

The campaign, though, has long had a work around for these folks. After the president clears the room or before he arrives, the Democratic National Committee can set up another fundraiser in the same spot and ushers the check-wielding lobbyists through the back door. That money can help build the president’s ground forces, run attack ads on Republicans and fund state offices, but the Obama campaign can still technically say that the president himself doesn’t accept money from lobbyists.

But an even neater bit of legalism comes on the definition of what a “lobbyist” is. The president won’t take money from registered lobbyists, but those who are “strategic advisers” to clients hoping to have an influence on “government affairs” are as welcome as they can be.

One of the biggest failures of the ethics effort in Washington is that being a registered lobbyist has become passé.

Yes, the staffers and mid-level folks who ferry paperwork back and forth between associations and Hill hearing rooms or who seek regulatory rewrites on abstruse agency issues are registered, photographed and placed on something akin to Washington’s sex-offender registry.

It’s a list nobody wants to be on, in part because of Obama’s own campaign rhetoric, but also from decades of weasely practices by lobbyists and politicians. Nobody in either party ever considering running for office wants to have “lobbyist” on their resume. That’s why defeated politicians like former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle take jobs with law firms that have lobbying practices and act as advisers to lobbying clients but don’t register as lobbyists, per se. They can peddle influence but don’t need to go in the black book as long as they are not doing the shoe-leather work, which they wouldn’t do anyway.

Obama provides another incentive to Democratic influence sellers to stay off the books with his fundraising rules.

The New York Times reports today that at least 15 of these unregistered lobbyists are among the ranks of Obama’s most important donors, big givers who then go raise more money from others. They are known in Washington as “bundlers,” and so far they have added more than $5 million to the president’s re-election campaign.

These are folks like Sally Susman, head of lobbying for drug maker and Obama health overhaul beneficiary Pfizer. She’s raised $500,000 for Obama so far, which is perfectly fine under Obama’s rules because she in not a registered lobbyist herself.

Another half-million-dollar man for Obama, Andy Spahn, was once the head of lobbying for DreamWorks Pictures, the studio led by influential Democrat Steven Spielberg. Spahn is now a free agent, leading his own “government relations” firm that touts “extensive relationships in Washington, D.C.” But he’s not registered, so it’s cool.

The Times cites Naderite group Public Citizen to say that Obama has at least done something to staunch the flow of lobbyist money, even if it falls short and then observes that Republicans have no such restrictions.

The Obama campaign responded to the story with the same argument saying essentially that Obama should be credited, not blamed: “A story in today's New York Times misses the forest for the trees, obscuring the President's long history of advancing ethics and government reform and brushing right past his opponents' records with nothing but a shrug.”

But not mentioned is the distorting affect Obama’s policies have, actually weakening the original rules that have lobbyists register. If it’s better to be operating in the shadows and technically avoiding registering, Washington is in NCAA-land where a plethora of rules encourage deceit and create more space for corruption.

The Washington Post long ago called out the administration for having policy makers holding meetings with lobbyists in coffee shops around the White House to avoid having to record the visits in Secret Service guest logs. It looks better for the administration to not have those folks on the books, but we know less about who is shaping administration policy. They only do it to avoid their own rules, not to break any ethics restrictions, but what Team Obama does for the sake of appearances still undercuts the intent of having lobbyists register.

Similarly, with Obama’s campaign rules, he can take money from lobbyists but still bash Republicans for doing the same thing, even as his loopholes help undermine the already slipshod existing system.

Whom Would Ron Paul Tolerate as GOP Nominee?

"I wouldn't rule it out."

-- Rep. Ron Paul when asked on “Special Report Online with Bret Baier” whether he would consider a third-party bid if he does not win the GOP presidential nomination.

Ron Paul’s legions of supports have put him in the GOPs top five with Herman Cain, Mitt Romney, Newt Gingrich and Rick Perry. Paul has been as rock solid in the 7- to 10-point range as Romney has been in the 20- to 25-point bandwidth.

It’s not enough to get Paul the Republican nomination in a party where many remain committed to an interventionist foreign policy and the war on drugs, but it is a show of the durability of Paul’s support. While support for candidates based on personal style can evaporate quickly, Paul’s legionnaires are committed to libertarian ideas and are trying to drag the GOP in that direction. But they are also the least tied to the party.

Paul’s warning that he would consider a third-party run, issued this week during his turn in “the center seat” on “Special Report with Bret Baier,” should send chills down the spines of every Republican operative in the land.

Paul has had harsh words for Perry, Romney and Cain in turns, but the question is which of them would Paul see as equally as bad as Barack Obama. If Paul runs, he could easily draw 3 percent of the national vote, and possibly a lot more. Some of that support would come from libertarian-minded Democrats, but that’s a small and shrinking universe. Those votes would mostly come out of the GOP side and could certainly be enough to keep Obama in the White House.

The Paulistas and Perry have old bad blood from Texas over drug enforcement and crony capitalism claims. Cain, a former chairman of the Kansas City Federal Reserve, has been one of the staunchest defenders of the central bank at a time when it is far out of favor among conservatives and perhaps the greatest object of Paul’s scorn. Romney is the least conservative of the bunch and has taken heat from Paul over his support for bank bailouts, mandatory health insurance and more. Gingrich has mostly escaped Paul’s scalpel, but perhaps that will change with the former speaker making it in to the finals.

Republicans had better hurry and find out what Paul will tolerate and what he won’t, because if he decides to crash the general election, he could do to Romney, Cain, Perry or Gingrich what Ross Perot did to Bob Dole in 1992.