September 14, 2011; Source: Open Secrets Blog | The organizations that pay attention to money in politics (such as the Center for Responsive Politics, which publishes the Open Secrets Blog) have taken note of a new report by the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest (CLPI). CLPI argues that the Obama Administration’s efforts to reduce the influence of lobbyists in Washington have actually led to decreased transparency.

The policy that CLPI criticizes is the Administration’s prohibition on registered lobbyists taking jobs with agencies that they previously lobbied during the prior two years.

During his presidential campaign, President Obama was pretty strident about the undue influence of lobbyists in Washington. But there’s a problem, says CLPI. Not all lobbyists are created equal. A lobbyist representing Wall Street investment banks trying to minimize SEC oversight or fight against Dodd-Frank financial oversight legislation, or a lobbyist working for Big Pharma or weapons manufacturer, is different in many ways from an employee of a government-relations operation at a nonprofit public-interest or human-service organization. But the Administration’s rule is one-size-fits-all.

CLPI’s arguments are as follows:

  1. Some lobbyists who represent nonprofits are ceasing their lobbying for a two-year period to qualify for government appointments. This means that nonprofits are sometimes losing skilled lobbying staff.
  2. The Obama policy “stigmatizing” lobbying has made some nonprofits and their foundation funders increasingly reluctant to engage in it. This reduces support for nonprofit policy advocacy.
  3. Because of the restriction against future government appointments, some nonprofits report difficulties in recruiting lobbying staff.
  4. The policy ends up excluding nonprofit public interest employees from taking public service jobs, depriving the government of valuable public-interest knowledge and staff.

Perhaps the most troubling aspect of this report—indications of which have been obvious for some time—is that some lobbyists are simply not registering as such, or deregistering, in order to sidestep the Obama Administration restrictions. We have long suspected that many firms that do public relations and communications work on Capitol Hill are surreptitiously lobbying.

CLPI reports a number of nonprofits with five or more lobbyist deregistrations in 2009, including the American Cancer Society, Amnesty International USA, the Center for American Progress, Common Cause, the Corporation for Enterprise Development, Environment America, the National Council of La Raza, National Head Start Association, the Nature Conservancy, the Natural Resources Defense Council, Public Citizen, and Union of Concerned Scientists.

Sometimes, policies aren’t effective. Sometimes, powerful interests find ways of circumventing the policies (in this case, some 40 powerful business lobbyists or all-but-lobbyists have been recruited to work for the Obama Administration, notably chief of staff Bill Daley, who was in charge of the lobbying operation at JP Morgan Chase even though he wasn’t a registered lobbyist himself). Sometimes they generate impacts that are contrary to the intent of the policy-makers. To the extent that the restrictions drive lobbying underground, the effect is to reduce transparency, ultimately worsening the problem that the rules were supposed to solve.

What do you think? Is the CLPI critique on the mark, or has CLPI missed something important regarding the benefits of the policy that outweigh the downsides it highlights?—Rick Cohen