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Posted at 7:00 AM ET, 10/22/2007

Obama, Edwards, and the Lobbying Industry

By Michael Dobbs


Obama and Edwards refuse to take money from federal lobbyists.

"We continue to build the largest grassroots movement in history, but Washington lobbyists and special interests rallied to help Hillary Clinton out-raise us for the first time."


--Barack Obama, letter to supporters, October 16, 2007


"The first thing we have to do is cut off special interests' ability to influence campaigns with their money, and increase the power of regular people."


--John Edwards, in New Hampshire, October 13, 2007.


Both Barack Obama and John Edwards have fulminated against "lobbyists" and "insiders," and claimed that they will end "business as usual" in Washington if elected president. But the latest quarterly campaign finance reports show that both candidates continue to receive large sums of money from donors employed by powerful "special interests," including trial lawyers, pharmaceutical companies, and hedge funds.


Do we detect a little hypocrisy here?


The Facts

Exhibit A in the drive by both Obama and Edwards to "clean up" Washington is their refusal to accept "a dime" from "Washington lobbyists." It distinguishes them clearly from their chief Democratic rival, Hillary Clinton, who has raked in more than $500,000 from the lobbying industry this year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics (website is opensecrets.org) But it turns out that both Edwards and Obama have adopted a narrow definition of the word lobbyist, which raises questions about the effectiveness of their campaign.

  • They still take money from state lobbyists.

  • They make no attempt to distinguish between lobbyists for big corporations and lobbyists for small non-profits. They treat a lobbyist for Haliburton in the same way as a lobbyist for child poverty or cancer research.

  • They accept money from former lobbyists and future lobbyists.

  • As Clinton has pointed out, her rivals have no problem taking money from the people who pay the lobbyists, and give them their "marching orders." (ABC News debate, August 19, 2007.)

  • They have no problem about taking money from people representing other "special interests," e.g. trial lawyers and the hedge fund industry.

  • So far this year, according to Opensecrets.org, Edwards has taken more than $8 million from lawyers and law firms, some of whom employ the federally-registered lobbyists whose lucre he refuses to touch. Obama is not far behind: $7.5 million. (Clinton has taken $9.2 million.)

    Obama has emphasized that he does not take money from PhRMA, the powerful lobbying arm of the pharmaceutical industry. On the other hand, he does not seem to mind taking money from senior employees of PhRMA members, such as Pfizer and Eli Lilly. Campaign finance records show that he has raised about $250,000 in pharmaceutical-related contributions this year. (Clinton collected $269,000.) He has also not been averse to helping out Illinois-based pharmaceutical companies with "tariff suspensions."

    Nor does refusing to accept money from federal lobbyists prevent the Obama and Edwards campaigns from accepting in-kind contributions from registered lobbyists in the form of volunteer work. See this Roll Call article. My colleague, Matt Mosk, recently reported that the Obama campaign is hiring a top lobbyist, Moses Mercado, as a senior adviser. Mercado's accounts with the Ogilvy Government Relations lobbyist group included Pfizer, United Health Group, and the Blackstone Group, which paid millions of dollars to Ogilvy to defeat proposals for doubling taxes paid by private equity managers. Mercado has said he will take a "leave of absence" from Ogilvy in order to work for Obama.

    In the meantime, the Obama campaign returned a $250 contribution from a small-time federal lobbyist named Gigi Sohn, who works for a non-profit organization called Public Knowledge that advocates digital consumer rights. Sohn has, however, been permitted to help the campaign as a volunteer. In an interview with Roll Call, Sohn described Obama's position on lobbyists as "absurd." She said that the loopholes in the anti-lobbyist campaign were "big enough to drive a truck through."

    A spokesman for Obama, Ben LaBott, said that "neither Mercado, nor any registered federal lobbyist, is a staff member of the Obama campaign." He declined to say whether Mercado would join the campaign at at later date or is an unpaid adviser. He said that the ban on accepting money from federal lobbyists was not "a perfect solution to the problem [of money in politics], and it isn't even a perfect symbol, but it does reflect that Obama shares the urgent desire of the American people to change the way Washington operates."

    A spokesman for Edwards, Eric Schultz, said that there was a "clear distinction" between refusing to take money from lobbyists and taking money from the people who employ them. "Either you lobby the federal government or you don't. Either you are paid to influence legislation and the people who write it or you're not. The line is clear and only murky for those who are trying to blur it."

    Obama gets points for acknowledging that the line he is attempting to draw is a vague one, and that all presidential candidates are tainted by their frantic efforts to raise money. "The argument is not that I'm pristine, because I'm swimming in the same muddy water [as the other candidates]," he told reporters in Iowa, back in August. "The argument is that I know it's muddy and I want to clean it up."

    The Pinocchio Test

    We have to admit to feeling a little ambivalent on this one. Our truth-squadding colleagues at Politifact had no compunction about awarding the Edwards campaign a "half true" rating for the claim that he had "never taken" the money of Washington lobbyists. As far as we can establish (and we have only examined the present election cycle), neither Edwards nor Obama have knowingly accepted campaign contributions from federally registered lobbyists, so that claim is technically correct.

    On the other hand, their grandiose campaign language seems to promise more than it actually delivers. There are an awful lot of loopholes. Let's hear what you think. Are Obama and Edwards making a good faith effort to reduce the influence of money in politics, or are they playing with words and legalistic definitions? We will excerpt the most thoughtful contributions in a future post. We would particularly like to hear from that much maligned breed: "Washington lobbyists"? Are you as evil as they say you are? E-mails only, please. No cheques or envelopes.

    VERDICT PENDING

    By Michael Dobbs  | October 22, 2007; 7:00 AM ET
    Categories:  Barack Obama, Candidate Record, Candidate Watch  
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