- The Washington Times - Sunday, February 1, 2009


Last year was a bad year for virtually every business in America, including the lobbying business in Washington, D.C. According to a report in the Hill newspaper, all but a handful of the top 20 lobbying firms lost revenue.

There was one major exception. The Podesta Group saw a 40 percent rise in its revenue, to $16 million from $11.4 million.

Throughout the election campaign, lobbyists were for Barack Obama what “economic royalists” and “malefactors of great wealth” had been for Franklin Roosevelt. Lobbyists, to hear Mr. Obama tell it on the stump, were responsible for all such evil in the world that couldn’t be attributed to George W. Bush. He pledged there would be no lobbyists in his administration.

The day after his Inauguration, President Obama signed an executive order which, among other things, said that any lobbyist appointed to a post in his administration could not oversee policy areas in which he had lobbied.

All of Barack Obama’s promises come with an expiration date, as Jim Geraghty of National Review Online never tires of reminding us. But rarely has the half-life of an Obama pledge been so short.

No sooner had President Obama issued his new rules on lobbyists than he granted a waiver to William Lynn, his nominee for deputy secretary of defense, who had been a lobbyist for Raytheon, a major defense contractor.

“While I applaud the president’s decision to implement new, more stringent ethical rules, I had hoped he would not find it necessary to waive them so soon,” said Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican. Among others with questions about the nomination were Sen. Carl Levin, Michigan Democrat and chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee, and Sen. Claire McCaskill, Missouri Democrat, who said Mr. Lynn represents a “strong example” of “the industry-government executive revolving door phenomenon.”

White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs said the waiver was granted because Mr. Lynn, who served in several posts in the Defense Department during the Clinton administration, was so highly qualified.

I have no objection to the waiver, because I think the rule that was waived is silly. Congress is for sale, but lobbyists are a symptom of that problem, not its cause. Whether or not a lobbyist is a good appointment depends on his or her intelligence and character, and to some degree on what he or she was lobbying for.

I’m all for prohibiting senior government officials from taking lobbying jobs for a period of years after their service, because too many have tilted policy to benefit future employers. But to deny a former lobbyist the ability to work in the area of his or her expertise is just plain stupid.

Still, there is something unseemly about issuing a rule, and then immediately exempting yourself from it. Like the nomination of Timothy Geithner for Treasury secretary despite his failure to pay Social Security and Medicare taxes for four years, it gives the impression the rules are only for suckers. There is no faster way to undermine respect for the rule of law.

Mr. Obama has a tendency to make sweeping statements for appearances’ sake, and then to back away if implementing them is inconvenient.

“President-elect Obama has pledged to change the way Washington works and curb the influence of lobbyists,” said the co-chairman of his transition team, John Podesta, in announcing what he said were “the strictest and most far reaching ethics rules of any transition team in history.” But the sudden prosperity of the Podesta Group (headed by John’s brother Tony) suggests lobbyists will be more influential, not less, during the Obama years.

A proof of this is the stimulus bill, which is stuffed with special interest projects despite Mr. Obama’s pledge to have no “earmarks” in it. They’re just called something else.

I haven’t minded most of the president’s trimming of his promises, because he has been backing away from positions I consider foolish. But it must trouble some of his supporters that his word has the value of a Confederate dollar.

Jack Kelly, a syndicated columnist, is a former Marine and Green Beret and a former deputy assistant secretary of the Air Force in the Reagan administration. He is national security writer for the Pittsburgh (Pa.) Post-Gazette.

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