Obama Lobbyist Policy Doing More Harm Than Good

Ryan Grim has an excellent story in The Huffington Post spelling out in some detail what’s been a mounting problem with the Obama administration — the ban on lobbyists is having perverse consequences for staffing:

Lobbyists who for years have fought for workers’ rights, environmental protection, human rights, pay-equity for women, consumer protection and other items on the Obama agenda have found the doors to the White House HR department slammed shut. In the past, several progressive lobbyists explained, there was no reason not to register if there was a slim chance that the law might require it. Obama’s new policy changes the calculus, leading folks to deregister as federal lobbyists or consider other employment while they wait out the policy’s required two-year separation from lobbying.

Way back in August 2007 I criticized Obama’s lobbyist pledge as “meaningless grandstanding.” That turns out to have been too optimistic as Tom Malinowski and other well-qualified individuals who registered as lobbyists while working for progressive non-profits find themselves shut out of jobs, and the administration finds itself understaffed.

The problem here has always been that the lobbyist/non-lobbyist distinction doesn’t track any meaningful goals. Goldman Sachs’ lawyer, for example, is not a lobbyist, and therefore not banned from office. A “lobbyist” is just someone who talks to members of congress about legislation. You can be a corrupt special interest and not be a lobbyist, and you can be a lobbyist who only works for good causes.


But dumb as the pledge was, it’s dumber still to stick with it. Flip-flopping will look bad, but nobody will care in 2012 about an old flip-flop. By contrast, lots of people will care by 2012 if we’re in the midst of a prolonged depression. The premium has to be on getting smart, effective people in place in order to frame and implement smart, effective policy. At the moment, Obama is still floating on a positive image and the fact that people rightly blame his predecessor for the current situation being so bad. But that brand isn’t going to be worth anything in a couple of years unless he brings back growth. He should admit that the initial pledge was ill-considered and a bit cynical and that it would be even more cynical to stick with a mistaken promise merely in order to avoid the need to admit a mistake.