'Scarlet L' for K Street returns as Obama sharpens 2012 rhetoric on lobbyists

Lobbyists are bracing for a new round of rhetorical attacks from President Obama as he runs for reelection.

The Obama administration has proposed a number of new regulations, such as a lobbyist gift ban across the entire executive branch and a prohibition against lobbyists serving on federal advisory committees, that codify restrictions first instituted in the early days of the president's first term.

The proposed rules have riled Washington lobbyists, who argue Obama is looking to score political points instead of authoring good policy.

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“I don't know whether a regulation requiring a lobbyist to wear a ‘scarlet L’ will pass through OIRA, but you never know with these folks,” Tony Podesta, head of the Podesta Group, told The Hill.

Podesta was referring to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, which is housed in the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) and reviews proposed regulations before they’re finalized.

At the 2008 Democratic convention in Denver, Podesta and his lobbyist wife, Heather Podesta, handed out scarlet L’s to the K Street denizens in attendance — a gesture that poked fun at the Obama campaign’s ban on lobbyist campaign contributions and fundraising.

Podesta said he’s likely to attend the next convention in Charlotte, N.C., but he’s not sure whether he’ll bring back the scarlet L’s.

“We had fun doing it last time, and we always like to have fun. We haven't placed an order yet, though,” Podesta said.

“Stay tuned,” said Heather Podesta, head of Heather Podesta + Partners.

Lobbyists expect to become a political target for Obama as he runs for reelection.

“This is going to be the same as the last time. This is going to be a proof point that he is going to use to prove that he is trying to change Washington, that he's an outsider, to bolster the narrative that he's not Beltway,” one Democratic lobbyist said of the proposed regulations.

Since lobbyists are forbidden from contributing to or fundraising for Obama’s campaign, as well as the party’s convention, it’s likely their access at the event will be greatly limited, too.

“It's almost impossible for lobbyists to participate in the convention,” said the lobbyist. “A lot of people are not going to go because they feel they're not welcomed.”

Since 2009, President Obama has sought to place several restrictions on lobbyists. Those moves won praise from watchdog groups, which said the White House was paying heed to the ethics and influence-peddling issues that Obama talked about on the campaign trail.

The administration has slowed the revolving door between government and the private sector by forbidding lobbyists from taking jobs in the executive branch; banning individuals who have left the administration from then lobbying their ex-colleagues; and restricting lobbying on the stimulus package.

Last week, OMB finalized guidance that would bar lobbyists from serving on federal advisory committees.

“It’s consistent with the steps we’ve taken from day one to expand government accountability and transparency,” said Meg Reilly, an OMB spokeswoman. “The president has taken steps from the start to close the revolving door between the federal government and special interests, to end the culture of powerful lobbying influence and to dramatically expand the level of transparency in government.”

Reilly also pointed to the White House releasing its visitor records and pushing federal agencies to release as much government data as possible to the public.

Howard Marlowe, president of the American League of Lobbyists, said Obama has found bashing K Street to be good politics.

“Since the early days of his 2007 campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, Obama has found it politically expedient to bash lobbyists. With the advance of the 2012 elections and the decline of his popularity, the president’s at it again,” said Marlowe, also president of lobby firm Marlowe & Co.

Many of the limitations that Obama has proposed are centered on who is registered under the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA). Marlowe said that has led to lobbyists leaving the disclosure system.

“We have already seen lobbyists disappearing from public sight by deregistering. These ‘consultants’ can do their work without telling the media and the public who they are, what issues they are working on, who is paying them and how much,” Marlowe said.

Lisa Rosenberg, a lobbyist for the Sunlight Foundation, said the Obama administration has missed the forest for the trees by focusing on lobbyists while ignoring the pervasive influence of money in politics.

“Part of what this administration is capturing by focusing on the ‘scarlet L,’ the LDA definition of a lobbyist, is the medium to the little guys. The real influence is going on with bundlers, CEOs and big fundraisers, and they continue to get a free ride under this administration,” Rosenberg said.

Sunlight, a watchdog group, has been supportive of many of the White House’s actions to usher in more government transparency and restrict lobbying. But Rosenberg said the new regulations fit into “sound-bite politics” for Obama.

“As we get closer to his reelection bid, he has backed off from money in politics while super-PACs are being formed in support of him. I think it is a complete reversal,” Rosenberg said.

The president pushed for passage of the Disclose Act, which would have required all political groups disclose their donors. That bill failed to pass last Congress, and the president has yet to sign a draft executive order that would require government contractors to disclose all of their political contributions.

"The draft executive order is still undergoing review,” said Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman. “Broadly speaking, the president is committed to improving our federal contracting system, making it more transparent and more accountable. He believes that American taxpayers deserve that, and that is why he has asked Congress to pass a full disclosure law."