EDITORIAL: Faux lobbyist reform, part deux

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Just when we thought President Obama’s phony effort to root out lobbyist influence in government couldn’t get any more obvious, the White House has fallen to a new low level of fakery.

A little noticed policy change issued by the White House ethics counsel this fall is expected to result in multitudes of registered lobbyists being removed from the nearly 1,000 panels that advise federal agencies on policy issues ranging from trade to health care. This action, however, does not mean the Obama administration will shun input from the sort of special interests the president regularly derides.

White House ethics counsel Norm Eisen has admitted as much, saying that the administration is fine with replacing lobbyists on advisory panels with business owners. They just don’t want the lobbying professionals to serve on the panels. This is nothing but smoke and mirrors, and the position doesn’t make a bit of sense. The hitch with lobbyists - whether for labor, business or any other cause - isn’t their professionalism; it’s the fact that their job is to inject narrow self-interest into decisions that should be focused on the public good.

Administration sidestepping is hardly surprising and reflects the reality of political life along the Potomac. Despite promises that lobbyists wouldn’t have a place in his White House, Mr. Obama has plenty of former lobbyists serving in top executive-branch positions. Lobbyists also have been regular attendees at his White House events. The role lobbyists play hasn’t changed at 1600 Pennsylvania Ave., but the president finds it politically comfortable if they are no longer registered as agents of influence.

For example, Service Employees International Union head Andy Stern, who was registered as a lobbyist until early 2007, was the most frequent White House visitor during the first nine months of Mr. Obama’s first year in office. Mr. Stern proves that not being registered as a lobbyist doesn’t prevent union or business officers from reaching out to lawmakers and government officials in innumerable ways to influence policy making. Such influence peddlers just have to do it less than 20 percent of their working day, which allows them to skate under federal registration requirements.

Insincere lobbying reforms are central to creating Mr. Obama’s public perception as a reformer. To much fanfare but little effect, the president put in place easy-to-bypass limits on how much access registered lobbyists could have to administration officials and in what capacity they can serve in public office. The latest advisory panel gambit is even more ineffectual and merely serves to limit transparency about efforts to influence the government and who is doing it. The result is that registered lobbyists, whose work to influence government is reported and thus traceable, can be replaced with corporate and union officers whose efforts are more secretive.

Mr. Stern is one of hundreds of lobbyists who have recently dropped their official registration so they can work more freely - and more quietly - in Mr. Obama’s Washington. While presidents have the right to engage the advisers they wish, Mr. Obama’s ballyhooed stance against lobbyists gives the impression of action while actually instituting no positive reform.

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