- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 10, 2009

ANALYSIS/OPINION:

Like his campaign promise to change the political tone in Washington, President Obama’s stance against lobbying and corporate influence has proved to be a mirage. Instead of actually blocking lobbyists from serving in his administration, his “reform” has simply encouraged lobbyists to stop admitting they are lobbyists.

After he signed an executive order restricting former registered lobbyists from being appointed to executive branch positions, more than 1,400 federal lobbyists withdrew their government registrations during the second quarter of the year, according to an analysis by Office of Management and Budget Watch and the Center for Responsive Politics. The number of newly registered lobbyists also decreased.

At the same time last year, just 300 registered lobbyists withdrew their registration - in line with the norm. Though nobody can prove what motivated all those lobbyists to make the change, the Obama administration policy certainly provided a new incentive.

Having fewer registered lobbyists doesn’t mean there actually are fewer people being paid to influence federal policy, just that they are less transparent about who is lobbying for what and who is paying the bills.

Even before the Obama administration policy, Washington was packed with persons whose job was to influence government policy but who did not register as lobbyists. For instance, a small army of corporate officers for private companies work to secure business with the federal government or influence policy. They also take presidential appointments, creating possible conflicts of interest.

Mr. Obama’s has focused only on the registered influence peddlers, but, despite the reform, his administration has hired a number of former lobbyists, both registered and not, for key positions. Deputy Secretary of Defense William J. Lynn lobbied for defense industry giant Raytheon Co., and Treasury Chief of Staff Mark Patterson represented Goldman Sachs’ interests. Deputy Health and Human Services Secretary William V. Corr is the former executive director of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

The president asks officials to pledge not to work on issues for which they lobbied over the previous two years. As a practical matter, this is little more than window dressing. Officials are still able to have a say in matters affecting their former employers.

For example, Terry A. Yonkers, Mr. Obama’s nominee for assistant secretary of the Air Force for installations and environment, currently serves as a top federal-business-development executive for Arcadis US, a division of the Amsterdam-based engineering firm.

In October, Arcadis was named a key contractor on a $3 billion, five-year worldwide Air Force environmental restoration and construction program. If confirmed, Mr. Yonkers would have no direct oversight over this contract but would be a top official in the office overseeing Air Force environmental policy. In setting general environmental policy for the Air Force, the former Arcadis executive cannot help but impact his former employer.

Although there is nothing inherently wrong with lobbyists or former corporate officials serving the president, transparency is the only tool to assure that former lobbyists put the public good over private gain. Mr. Obama’s half-hearted posturing on the evils of lobbying has backfired - pushing the Washington influence industry deeper into the shadows instead of cutting it back.

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