- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 19, 2009

Despite rhetoric to the contrary, President Obama does accept lobbyists at the White House. Not only has the president appointed a host of former lobbyists to key executive-branch positions, Service Employees International Union head Andy Stern was the most frequent White House visitor in the first nine months of the year. The union chief met with top officials and attended events some 22 times, according to White House logs.

An SEIU spokesman denied to us that Mr. Stern is a lobbyist, but Mr. Stern was registered as one until early 2007. Like a host of other union representatives, corporate officers and trade association leaders in Washington, just because he is not registered doesn’t mean he is not lobbying.

Mr. Stern - a key Obama ally - has used online posts to tout his effort this year to influence both the White House and lawmakers on Capitol Hill. On 2008 Department of Labor disclosure forms, he reported spending 24 percent of his time on lobbying and political activities. That was during a Republican administration when his access would have been much more limited.

Under the Lobbying Disclosure Act, people who spend 20 percent or more of their jobs every quarter on lobbying have to register with the federal government and file regular reports on their activities. The union spokesman told us that Mr. Stern “is not a lobbyist” because he doesn’t meet the quarterly percentage requirements. She also claimed that his 2008 Labor Department declaration mostly involved activities not covered by lobbying registration requirements, such as his time promoting Mr. Obama’s presidential run.

This technical response to queries about Mr. Stern’s activities demonstrates how federal lobbying laws fail to ensure full transparency. The quarterly nature of lobbying reporting was designed to guarantee that those who influence government policy are adequately tracked over the course of a year. While the Labor Department’s disclosure requirements differ from general lobbyist disclosure regulations, the reason lobbying and other political activities are lumped together for union officials is because both are used to influence government.

Instead of addressing the inadequacies of disclosure laws, Mr. Obama has focused his ire on registered lobbyists, imposing toothless limits on their access to administration officials and how they can serve in public office. Those efforts arguably drove the decisions by at least some of the 1,400 federal lobbyists who withdrew their government registrations during the second quarter of the year. Mr. Stern shows how ending registration doesn’t end influence. It only limits transparency.

Access equals influence in the lobbying world. The idea that Mr. Stern does not hold powerful influence in the Obama administration because he isn’t registered as a lobbyist is laughable given that he is so welcome at the White House.

Despite his admonishments of lobbyists and outside influence in government, Mr. Obama is enabling more of the same sort of influence peddling he told voters he would not tolerate if elected president. The more things change, the more they stay the same. That is the only change you can believe in.