By Robert Schlesinger, Thomas Jefferson Street blog
I shook my head the other night when President Obama called for further restrictions on how much lobbyists are allowed to contribute to political campaigns. First such a proposal is almost certainly unconstitutional: The Supreme Court has ruled that money in politics is protected as free speech, and while this (allegedly conservative) court has demonstrated a willingness to overturn precedent, that doesn't seem like one they'll go after. Beyond that, it further illustrates a problem I've had with the Obama administration's approach to lobbyists: It assumes that they are all evil.
The fact of the matter is that lobbyists are a mixed bag: some good, some bad. And while the ratio may well be lots bad, some good, lobbying is still a constitutionally protected activity. We all have the right to petition our government for redress of grievances. The fact that someone does that for a living shouldn't legally diminish their ability to participate in the political process.
The irony is that such a rule would probably get some support from ... lobbyists. As a lobbyist friend of mine wrote to me this morning, "I would love it if they capped campaign donations from lobbyists b/c I'm tired of all the fundraising calls and really don't want to give my money to federal campaigns."
To be fair, Obama has some pretty good lobbying proposals as well. I'm a big believer in disclosure, and as The Hill reports, he wants to force anyone who lobbies to register as a lobbyist. Currently only people who spend at least 20 percent of their time lobbying have to register. Lowering the threshold would, The Hill notes, ensnare non-lobbyist lobbyists like former Democratic Senate Leader Tom Daschle. Obama also wants new rules requiring that all lobbyists list their government contacts (currently only foreign lobbyists are required to do so).
But my lobbyist friend makes another good point: There's only so much that regulations can accomplish. At some point politicians have to take responsibility for their behavior. "My problem is that no one is talking about accountability for elected officials," my friend writes. "From what I can tell only the lobbyists have to disclose. And we're not the ones who are paid with taxpayer $$. Elected officials were responsible for 50% of the Jack Abramoff problem and they haven't done a thing to change THEIR behavior or increase their accountability to their constituents on these issues."