The Washington Post had a story yesterday, which is generating some Internet buzz, detailing how often registered lobbyists visit the Obama administration. It illustrates both the intractability of the system as well the limitations of campaign rhetoric.
According to the piece, by T.W. Farnham:
The White House visitor records make it clear that Obama's senior officials are granting that access to some of K Street's most influential representatives. In many cases, those lobbyists have long-standing connections to the president or his aides. Republican lobbyists coming to visit are rare, while Democratic lobbyists are common, whether they are representing corporate clients or liberal causes.
This is significant because, as Farnham writes:
More than any president before him, Obama pledged to change the political culture that has fueled the influence of lobbyists. He barred recent lobbyists from joining his administration and banned them from advisory boards throughout the executive branch. The president went so far as to forbid what had been staples of political interaction—federal employees could no longer accept free admission to receptions and conferences sponsored by lobbying groups.
One contextual question which would be helpful to answer but is very hard to: How does that rate as compared to past administrations? We're not likely to get a firm number on that any time soon because Obama's is the first administration to disclose its visitor logs. I suppose past administrations' logs must be on file at the respective presidential libraries, but the information is not downloadable.
Of course there's only so much Obama could do in this regard. Lobbying is, after all, a constitutionally protected activity. And it's also true that for better or worse lobbyists have become as permanent a part of the Washington policy process as elected officials and unelected bureaucrats. They tend to have specialized knowledge or access to it, and know how Washington works. "The president and the administration lost a great deal not being able to talk to people of both parties and of every persuasion that knew something about the industries and the questions and what was going on on the Hill," Chamber of Commerce President Thomas Donohue told reporters this morning at a press breakfast sponsored by the Christian Science Monitor. Donohue called the administration's original restrictions on meetings with lobbyists "Mickey Mouse."
To be sure Donohue and the Chamber are not fans of the Obama administration (though he studiously avoided saying as much when talking to reporters), but that hasn't prevented them from cooperating where the opportunity arises. "We've got very good relations where it counts," he said. "We work all the time with the guys at the NSC and at the trade office, and with the people at Treasury … We have whatever access we need. We don't spend a lot of time over there, you know, having tea. But whatever we have to get done we get done."
On one level this is the kind of rhetoric and attitude that will make activists on both sides break out into hives and start sputtering about collaborating with the enemy. But on another level it reflects some of the pragmatic spirit that has permitted Washington to function (necessity being the mother of cooperation) in a way that the prevailing congressional ethos of compromise means getting more of what I want threatens. "I worry about the Congress … that we have lot of people that are more significantly on the right and significantly on the left," Donohue said. "What really worries me about that is that it's really hard to make a deal if there's no bridge to get there."