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Editorial: Intimidation

Ever since last year’s presidential campaign, we’ve protested President Barack Obama’s broad-swath vilification and systematic exclusion of lobbyists as unfair and counterproductive.

Now, as the health care debate heats up, lobbyists representing stakeholders in the debate are being frozen out of meetings and — even worse — intimidated from speaking out in their clients’ interest.

Admittedly, Democratic treatment of lobbyists is still far short of the tactics employed during the “K Street Project— days of former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), who told industry groups that their interests would suffer if they hired Democrats to lobby for them.

Still, intimidation is going on — notably, by Senate Finance Chairman Max Baucus’ (D-Mont.) staffers, who’ve warned lobbyists to keep to themselves any criticisms that they may have about Democratic health care policy if they want to have a role in fashioning it.

And last week, as Roll Call reported, Baucus’ chief of staff, Jon Selib, and his top Finance aide, Russell Sullivan, told a group of lobbyists to keep their clients from attending a meeting with Republican Senators.

According to one lobbyist, the staffers said, “Republicans are having this meeting, and you need to let all of your clients know that if they have someone there, that will be viewed as a hostile act.—

The meeting in question, organized by Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.), was billed as an exploration of how to pay for health reform, but it was also part of GOP efforts to get stakeholders to break their silence about some aspects of Democratic health policy.

So what? It seems to us that Democratic lobbyists are capable of attending a GOP meeting, listening to a pitch and deciding for themselves whether to speak out.

Part of Selib and Sullivan’s message, one lobbyist said, was “if your clients attack the process or the product, it’s going to be hard to work with you.—

Baucus professed to be unaware of what his staff was doing, but that simply isn’t plausible.

In fact, some weeks ago, Baucus’ spokesman at the Finance panel said, diplomatically but with an edge, “Sen. Baucus is confident health care stakeholders will continue to play a constructive role. These groups know that the train is leaving the station.—

Indeed, it is. Democratic leaders have health care on a fast track to passage in the House and the Senate by August. And, intimidation or no, objections are beginning to be heard to various proposals, notably a Medicare-like “public plan— and taxes on sugar to help pay for health reform.

In the meantime, health lobbyists report they are routinely asked to sign off from participation in policy calls conducted by the White House — part of what one lobbyist calls “our leperization.—

As we’ve said before: Lobbyists are not to blame for past gridlock in the nation’s capital. Clashing interests are. And the way to resolve clashes is with open debate, not the silencing of lobbyists.

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