By Dave Wenhold - 02/16/10 09:50 PM EST
President Barack Obama has predictably passed the buck on what is wrong in Washington to the intensely regulated lobbying community. Yep, that’s right. The reason why nothing has gotten done in this town is because of those darn lobbyists, even though they never cast a single vote on the House or Senate floor.
It was evident by the seven times he mentioned lobbyists in his speech a couple of weeks ago. That might not seem like a lot, but take this into account: the number of times the speech mentioned Iraq was five; Afghanistan, five; education, five; and healthcare, only seven times! Seems like the focus is in the wrong place and a recent Pew research survey ranked increased lobbying reform almost last (19 out of 21 issues) on issues to be focused on.
The policies created by the administration forced people who may have previously registered to seriously look at their actual levels of “lobbying” and consider deregistering. Even watchdog groups had people deregister, which I find ironic and somewhat perplexing. Candidly, it was a simple cause-and-effect situation created by the administration’s own policies.
One proposal that I support is looking at the 20 percent threshold rule and trying to hold everyone accountable to the same standard. This is something that the American League of Lobbyists has been discussing for the past two years and has even spoken to watchdog groups, lobbying firms and Capitol Hill about.
I have always believed that if it walks like a duck and talks like a duck, it should be registered as a duck! In my opinion, it is a double standard for the administration to say there needs to be more regulations on lobbying while many of their coveted “special advisers,” or whatever they are calling themselves today, are allowed to explicitly lobby without registering and following the rules like the rest of us.
I am all for transparency and accountability, but as far as reporting every contact, every conversation, I disagree wholeheartedly.
In the quarterly reports that every lobbyist must file, the lobbyist reports on whom they lobby, what they are lobbying about, who pays them and how much. Additionally, the reporting covers whether the lobbyist has donated any money to any candidate. At some point, enough is enough and our conversations should remain private.
Logistically, without requiring the member’s office to report every contact and conversation, it would be impossible to verify the accuracy and, therefore, a pointless policy. I highly doubt that the members want yet another administrative task that takes their staff’s time away from their already strained workload.
In his speech, the president emphasized “drawing on the promise enshrined in our Constitution: the notion that we are all created equal, that no matter who you are or what you look like, if you abide by the law, you should be protected by it; that if you adhere to our common values, you should be treated no different than anyone else.” Lobbyists (who represent constituencies) should have the right to petition the government without excessive intrusion of their right to free speech.
The Supreme Court has already stated that a petitioner is granted the same rights, regardless if they are paid to speak. The wisdom of this judgment is clear, as the court understands that everyone who wants his or her voice to be heard cannot physically be here in Washington.
The administration needs to get out of campaign mode and into governance mode and stop blaming the lobbying community for not being able to pass legislation.
At the end of the day, it comes down to this simple notion: Lobbyists don’t vote on the floor. It is convenient to point a finger at someone else and try to shift the blame, but this administration needs to take sage advice from the plaque on President Truman’s desk that stated “The Buck Stops Here!”
Wenhold is a founding partner of Miller/Wenhold Capitol Strategies, a Washington government affairs and grassroots lobbying firm. He also serves as president of the American League of Lobbyists. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.