The right eloquence needs no bell to call the people together and no constable to keep them. ~ Emerson

Wednesday, April 22, 2009

Beyond the Spoils System

The Main Point of Obama’s Reforms Should Be to Protect Progressives When He Is No Longer in Office.

On his first day in office, President Obama signed an executive order banning registered lobbyists from working for any government agency lobbied by them in the past two years. Public advocacy groups like the Project on Government Oversight, Common Cause, and the League of Women Voters praised the new policy as “groundbreaking.”

When Obama issued a few high-profile waivers early on in the nomination process, such as for William Lynn, a defense industry lobbyist who eventually became Deputy Defense Secretary, public advocacy groups were equally vocal in demanding no exceptions. They were largely successful, with only three waivers ultimately issued among eight hundred total appointments.

Now these same public advocacy lobbyists are angry with the Obama Administration again over the new policy. This time, however, it is because Obama refuses to make exceptions for them.

The issue first appeared back on March 5, as a story by Ryan Grim reported in the Huffington Post. “The implementation of [the anti-lobbying] rule, however, has led to a number of consequences that Obama could never have intended,” Grim wrote. “Eliminating lobbyists from consideration drains the pool of progressive talent that the White House needs at a time when agencies and departments are severely understaffed.”

Grim goes on to describe “a sense of betrayal” felt by progressives over the matter. They take offense at being lumped together with big money corporate hired guns. “It seems very unsophisticated to me to have gone down this road where you make no distinction between the environmental lobbyist and the Exxon lobbyist,” said one frustrated government job applicant.

Liberal blogger Matthew Yglesias trumpeted Grim’s story the next day on his website and augmented it with his own outrage on the subject. “Way back in August 2007 I criticized Obama’s lobbyist pledge as ‘meaningless grandstanding’. That turns out to have been too optimistic.”

The problem was never lobbying per say, according to Larry Ottinger, president of the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest. “It was a problem of money corrupting politics.” Corporate lobbyists undercut democracy by selling influence, insist progressives, whereas public interest lobbyists enrich democracy through legitimate advocacy, often with no money involved.

A compounding problem is that many public advocacy activists in Washington registered as lobbyists, even when the level of their activities did not require it, in a public display of transparency. Now there is a mass scrambling by these same individuals to deregister. Others who cannot deregister are talking about sitting on the sidelines for two years in order to qualify for government jobs.

The net effect is a double whammy, such that the progressives Obama needs to help carry through his initiatives will not be available to craft or advocate for policy changes.

For its part, the Obama Administration argues that lobbying does not require big money to represent a slippery slope for democracy. Corruption is still all too easy when people in policy positions try to make unbiased decision over issues for which they were just recently highly biased advocates. Trying to separate those representing “good” issues is simply impracticable.

“You can’t have a value judgment,” insists White House Chief of Staff Rahm Emanuel.

Senior adviser David Axelrod agrees. “You can’t have carve-outs for lobbyists you like and exclude those that you don’t. It would be very hard for people to understand that distinction.”

Norm Eisen, the President's chief ethics counsel, said in a White House blog posting that it is “important to have reasonable exceptions” to the lobbying rules, but he added that such waivers would be used “sparingly.”

White House officials also point out that despite the lobbying ban’s strictures, Obama appointments have generally proceeded at a faster pace than for the previous three Administrations.

In spite of this, progressives continue to have trouble with the “good guys” (i.e. themselves) being punished along with the “bad guys.” For example, many are incensed that lobbying by Tom Malinowski against genocide in Darfur, repression in Myanmar, and torture by the United States prevents his selection as Obama’s human rights chief.

Indeed, mention of Malinowski is so ubiquitous in articles that it is sometimes unclear whether he is the accidental poster child for a populist movement or whether progressive created a movement specifically to address his particular situation.

In any case, Jacob Weisberg, writing in both Newsweek and Slate, contrasts the rejection of Malinowski with the appointment of corporate hired gun Tony Podesta by the government agency Sallie Mae. Weisberg correctly proclaims, “There is every imaginable ethical difference between Podesta’s work and Malinowski’s.”

Yet Weisberg eventually finds himself forced to admit, “As a matter of law, however, it is probably impossible to distinguish between them. Both are exercising the same First Amendment right to petition the government. Both have a legal obligation to register as lobbyists. The rule that bars the one Obama doesn't want prevents him from hiring the one he does want.”

Democratic Senator Russell Feingold of Wisconsin, a long-time proponent of government reform, thinks this is all for the best. “If the rules are made clear now and kept, people can plan their conduct accordingly in the future,” he said.

Other progressives disagree. “These are not the people they were trying to get at,” asserts Stephen Rickard, Washington director of the Open Society Institute.

The above is one of the most chilling platitudes routinely uttered in a democracy, disguised as a sincere and reasonably expressed sentiment. Rules and laws require consistent enforcement or they lose all meaning – we have seen enough over the past eight years of what happens from ignoring that simple principle. Exceptions are unavoidable but they must also be objective, consistent, and truly necessary.

Government reform ought not to ensure the people we like best are in office. Instead, it should protect us from those we consider dangerous from being able to wield power. As one disgruntled office seeker noted, “Heaven help us that there’s never another anti-worker, anti-poor-people Administration but my gut tells me there will be.”

We should all realize this and we should further realize that temporarily placing public advocacy lobbyists in policy positions would do nothing to temper this blow when it falls. Obama reversed Bush Administration policies just as Bush reversed Clinton Administration policies, Clinton reversed policies from the Reagan/Bush Sr. Administrations, and so on.

Progressives need to remember there are massive disagreements over what is “in the public’s best interest” between the two major Parties. Many conservatives could sincerely argue that a defense industry lobbyist, by seeking to improve the nation’s security, was far more helpful to the public interest than an environmental lobbyist bewailing global warming or a human rights lobbyist haranguing against torture of terrorist suspects.

If Obama maintains a simple and consistent policy (i.e. no lobbyists allowed), then when the next Republican President finally comes along, he or she could not reverse that policy without appearing to endorse the potential corruption it intended to fight. If Obama simply uses reform as an excuse to appoint only people who agree with him, the next Republican President cannot only reverse the policy but Obama has just handed them the very rationale as to why he or she may do so.

Stephen Rickard, executive director of the Open Society Policy Center, calls Tom Malinowski’s situation “an outrage” and insists, “Tom is one of the most effective and dedicated human rights activists in Washington and you could get twenty people to say that. It’s extremely unfortunate that Tom and people like Tom can’t be brought in to use their talents.”

It is a shame but Rickard might want to remember a mea culpa Obama had to issue over his attempts to bring another Tom into government. “I’ve got to own up to my mistake,” Obama said at the time. “Ultimately, it's important for this Administration to send a message that there aren't two sets of rules – you know, one for prominent people and one for ordinary folks.”

The Tom in question was Tom Daschle and the problem was back taxes as opposed to lobbying but the principle remains the same. Everyone viewed Daschle as probably best positioned to act as point man on healthcare reform but others were available who could do the job. There is a distinct difference between this situation and the less admirable but necessary case of William Lynn, a uniquely positioned Democrat with defense chops and sympathy toward Obama’s views.

Nonprofit groups and ideological organizations comprise only five and a half percent of the $3.24 billion spent each year for Washington lobbying. Nonetheless, the $180 million this represents is far from chump change. Just because their motives are usually admirable does not guarantee their methods are always pure.

It is understandable why many public interest lobbyists would like a government job. Unlike their big money corporate counterparts, this would represent a raise for them. However, there is also no guarantee that effective partisans continue as effective policymakers or that successful advocates become successful administrators.

Progressives' frustration is understandable but their sense of betrayal is misplaced. The Obama Administration is right adhering to the strict anti-lobbying policy that public advocacy groups helped it to mold. Democrats are the Party that invented the spoils system; it is time to move beyond it in hopes of minimizing the impact of future spoilers.

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