Obama – McCain : Turn on lobbyist nightmare on the campaign trail

Reading time 3 min.

It is an irony of the 2008 election that the long shadow of Jack Abramoff, the former Republican super-lobbyist, looms over the very man, John McCain, whose Senate investigations paved the way for his conviction on corruption and fraud charges two years ago.

By Stephanie Kirchgaessner in Washington

Senator Barack Obama, the presumptive Republican nominee’s likely Democratic rival for the White House, has made eradicating Washington’s “culture of corruption” a core theme of his campaign and a point of attack against Mr McCain.

Mr Obama’s charge, that the Arizona senator has hired “some of the biggest lobbyists in Washington” to run his presidential bid, has taken its toll. The campaign has suffered at least five high-profile resignations following revelations that two of Mr McCain’s advisers lobbied for the junta in Burma, forcing the campaign to institute a new policy that bars registered lobbyists from taking full-time positions with it.

Mr Obama’s message has been bolstered by his own stance on federal lobbyists. He has not accepted their donations, does not allow them to take paid positions on his campaign, and has said they will not “run” his White House.

But the Democratic candidate’s policy on registered lobbyists has not stopped him from counting on voluntary advisers who are lobbyists and consultants for corporations and other special interests with a Washington agenda. Chief among those is former South Dakota senator Tom Daschle, who is a voluntary co-chair of Mr Obama’s campaign while also working as a policy adviser for Alston & Bird, a Washington law firm and lobby group whose clients include healthcare providers and energy companies.

Mr Daschle is not a registered lobbyist – and therefore need not disclose who his clients are – because he does not directly contact elected officials on their behalf.

Broderick Johnson, a registered lobbyist for Shell and Verizon, is also a voluntary adviser to Mr Obama, as is Daniel Shapiro, a lobbyist for Freddie Mac and others.

As he seeks to assume the mantle of “Washington reformer” – a role Mr McCain has also claimed for himself – Mr Obama must grapple with a difficult political reality: how to incorporate influential former lawmakers and other policy advisers who have ties to special interests into his campaign while maintaining his reputation as a grassroots candidate.

The Obama campaign says its policy on lobbyists is not a perfect symbol or solution, but reflects his desire to curb the undue influence of special interests.

Eric Washburn, an energy lobbyist who voluntarily advises Mr Obama on conservation issues, believes the Obama campaign is trying to figure out how to draw clearer lines between lobbyists and policymakers.

“There are a lot of policy experts who have registered to lobby on behalf of corporations and non-profit organisations. You want their advice, but you don’t want to be beholden to them. How do you create a structure to allow that to occur?” Mr Washburn says.

Massie Ritsch, a spokesman for the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics, says he is not inherently opposed to lobbyists advising candidates on policy matters, because they are often experts who are also politically connected – people who would be valuable to a campaign.

Mr Ritsch adds, however, that the distinction the Obama campaign makes between allowing lobbyists to advise on policy voluntarily while barring them from serving in paid positions could be a red herring.

“Lobbying firms [that allow employees to volunteer for campaigns] must have the expectation that it will pay off in some way. If they [lobbyists and advisers] are being paid or not, the firm is without their full- time labour, and that’s a cost,” Mr Ritsch says.

Craig Holman, a campaign finance lobbyist at Public Citizen, a public advocacy group, supports Mr Obama’s stance on lobbyists, but is reserving the right to be “exceedingly critical” of Mr Obama if the senator decided to back down on an early promise to accept public financing for the general election campaign in favour of a privately funded run. “He’ll raise more [privately], but he’ll face sharp scrutiny,” he says.

The Financial Times

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