The New York Times has an article today on the emergence of a problem area in the Obama administration’s nearly-blanket exclusion of lobbyists from holding positions in the administration. Essentially while President Obama’s campaign promise to shut out lobbyists has largely worked, it has also meant many uniquely talented individuals who have spent their career lobbying for non-profits, charities, and human rights groups are ineligible to roles they would be excessively well suited for. At issue is the simple reality that not all lobbyists are created equally. It is fairly nonsensical for administration officials to contend that someone who has spent a career working for Human Rights Watch is indistinguishable from someone who has spent their career lobbying for Philip Morris, Pfizer, or Wal-Mart.
The article reminded me of the exchange during the 2007 Yearly Kos Presidential Forum, where Hillary Clinton was heavily booed for saying she would continue to accept lobbyist contributions to her campaign.
While Clinton’s answer was politically problematic in front of a very progressive audience that largely, at that time, backed Obama and John Edwards, in hindsight the point she’s making should be quite clear. Lobbyists fighting for nurses, firefighters, child care workers, or victims of genocide simply are not the same as lobbyists for major corporations. Unfortunately for Clinton, while she was making a true assertion about different types of lobbyists, she would not extend that distinction to her finance department’s guidelines for accepting donations. That is, she used nurses to cover for pharmaceutical lobbyists and was largely punished for it politically.
Making exceptions to this policy wouldn’t be hard. An easy guideline would be to limit acceptable lobbyists to those that have worked in social services, human rights, labor unions, and environmental organizations. Or, on the other hand, you could exclude anyone who has lobbied on behalf of a Fortune 500 company or industry lobbying group. This would work because the problem isn’t constitutionally protected lobbying activities, but the influence of money on politics. I’ve never heard of Human Rights Watch being associated with someone like Jack Abramoff, though I can’t say the same for many business lobbies. Those are the areas whose influence the Obama administration should seek to reduce in their house, not people working honorably for human rights and charitable purposes.