Change We Can Issue Waivers For

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Way back on August 4, 2007 I was watching a Presidential Debate at Netroots Nation and wrote in defense of Hillary Clinton, my least-favorite candidate, on one specific point:

Hillary Clinton got some boos for her defense of lobbyists and, indeed, her initial response — which amounted to pointing out that some Democratic-leaning interest groups have lobbyists, too — wasn’t very compelling. The second time around, though, she got the right answer, namely that lobbyists do their jobs because they get hired by people and Obama and Edwards take money from the executives and so forth who do the hiring, so the whole distinction is basically meaningless.

As best I can tell, that’s totally correct; refusing to take money from lobbyists is just a kind of meaningless grandstanding.

But Obama’s lobbyist grandstanding has continued and in one of the first acts of his administration he issued an executive order banning lobbyists from all kinds of administration work. But then he wanted William Lynn to be Deputy Secretary of Defense. So it turned out that the order had a waiver process and Lynn was granted a waiver on basically the grounds that, well, he was the best man for the job. And now comes this news:

Despite President Barack Obama’s pledge to limit the influence of lobbyists in his administration, a recent lobbyist for investment banking giant Goldman Sachs is in line to serve as chief of staff to Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner.

Mark Patterson was a registered lobbyist for Goldman until April 11, 2008, according to public filings.

I don’t have particular views on the merits of Lynn or Patterson, but I think the whole thing illustrates the lack of merits of this anti-lobbyist posturing. Among other things, the distinction between “lobbyists” and other forms of influence-peddlers is pretty irrelevant. I do worry about putting too much of our regulatory authority in the hands of people whose primary allegiance is to friends on Wall Street rather than to the public interest. But if instead of being a lobbyist for Goldman, Patterson had been some other kind of Goldman employee, that wouldn’t actually ease my concerns. Meanwhile, you do need some people in government who know the private sector world so it’s not possible to totally avoid these kinds of ties. Either way, the way you take on the entrenched interests of the wealthy and powerful is by taking on their interests not by promulgating ethics rules so tight that you immediately start searching for loopholes in them.