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Street Talk: Unlobbyists Give Real Lobbyists a Bad Name

Who do Tom Daschle, Newt Gingrich and Ron Klein think they’re fooling?

Each member of this trio, all former Members of Congress, is an unlobbyist. That is someone who engages in plenty of behind-the-scenes influencing, represents clients who are trying to sway government action, may even work in a lobbying practice but still is not — or at least claims he shouldn’t be — a registered federal lobbyist.

These strategic advisers or policy counsels, or historians in Gingrich’s case, avoid getting tagged officially with an “L” by tapping high-priced lawyers who are experts on the laws of lobby land.

Daschle, a former Senate Majority Leader, is a senior policy adviser at DLA Piper. Gingrich, a former Speaker and now a presidential candidate, was a consultant who said he provided “historical” advice to clients.

Klein, a bundler for the Obama campaign, is a partner in the lobbying practice at Holland & Knight and recently registered to represent Spirit Airlines, only to blame the filing on a clerical error by his firm; the former Florida lawmaker said he was taking immediate steps to de-register, so he can go back to being an unlobbyist.

The unlobbyists can engage in some limited lobbying activities and still avoid triggering the need to register — because apparently there is nothing worse than being a registered federal lobbyist, especially in an election year.

Just ask President Barack Obama.

With limited exceptions, he has barred federal lobbyists from serving in his administration and from giving money to his re-election campaign or bundling donations for him as Klein does. The Democratic National Committee and the nominating convention, following Obama’s lead, have placed similar restrictions on K Street cash, though state lobbyists and high-level corporate advisers are OK.

Ironically, the unlobbyists represent what the public imagines real lobbyists to be: operating in the shadows outside public disclosure laws for a collection of murky or completely unknown interests. Yet it’s the real lobbyists, the ones who file their quarterly reports disclosing the names of their clients and roughly how much they got paid, who get the bad rap.

Because of that, more real lobbyists have opted to become unlobbyists.

“When the Obama administration came in, we had some associates in the firm, who, some were actually being vetted for administration jobs, got disqualified for minimal lobbying contacts,” explained John Merrigan, who co-chairs DLA Piper’s federal law and policy group. “That taught a lesson. So a number of people said, ‘We’d rather not register’ or ‘We’d rather un-register.’”

In the words of American University professor James Thurber, who teaches a course on lobbying and ethics: “The president promised to change the way Washington works. He hasn’t. It’s just gone underground.” Thurber added that the Obama White House relied on the policy expertise of plenty of unlobbyists, including Daschle, when crafting the health care law.

Thurber served on the American Bar Association’s task force that, after examining the current lobbying laws, concluded the Lobbying Disclosure Act needs an update.

“We called it the Daschle problem,” Thurber said. The American League of Lobbyists, which is devising its own proposal to reform the law, has taken to calling it the Gingrich loophole. Perhaps Klein will get his own moniker now, too.

Whatever you call it, Thurber is pushing for more disclosure of all the elements of a modern lobbying campaign — the grass-roots and AstroTurf organizing, the social media advocacy, coalition building, advertising and “the entire galaxy of people who are involved in an issue campaign.”

In short, all of the unlobbyists.

“What strikes me is that the level of hypocrisy all around is just so high,” said Burdett Loomis, a University of Kansas political science professor who studies lobbying. He pointed to Obama’s recent blessing of a super PAC to support his re-election efforts and the fact that Members of Congress beat up on lobbyists in speeches while also soliciting them for campaign money.

“The idea that lobbyists are a separate class, some sort of lepers, is just absurd. Newt’s a historian and doesn’t lobby? There’s a word for that, and it’s just bullshit or junk, whatever you’re able to print,” he said.

Sometimes the charade, or hassle, of being an unlobbyist just loses its appeal. After all, to do it legitimately you must track your time diligently for every client to make certain that no more than 19 percent of your work for any one client is lobbying. And you can’t make more than one lobbying contact with a covered official.

There was a time when Bob Dole was an unlobbyist. He even had his office send a message to Congress, alongside a lobbying registration, filed by Bob Dole Enterprises. “The purpose of this letter is to advise you that former Senator Bob Dole does not lobby on behalf of Johnson & Johnson or any other client,” the 2000 note explained.

Since then, Dole, who is now special counsel with Alston + Bird, has registered for numerous lobbying clients including the American Beverage Association, Expedia and Peninsula Gaming. Acknowledging what everyone already knew, he’s a lobbyist.

“It becomes a story if you try to fool people,” said Ivan Adler, a K Street headhunter with the McCormick Group.

And really, it seems, nobody’s fooled.

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