Lobbyists Ask Obama for a Hand

Posted March 14, 2012 at 6:05pm

The American League of Lobbyists is sort of like the teen outcast who somehow comes up with the gumption to ask the most popular guy at school not only to stop making fun of her, but also for a date.

The guy, in this case, is President Barack Obama. And the date would come in the form of a meeting about changes to the laws that govern K Street.

The lobbyists’ group is hoping to tamp down the commander in chief’s vitriol for the influence industry while harnessing some of his enthusiasm for reforms aimed at the sector.

But three days after writing to Obama, who has never concealed his disdain for federal lobbyists, the league waits. And waits.

“We’ll give them a couple days, and then we’ll call,” said Howard Marlowe, the league’s president. “We’re going to keep on pressing to actually get a meeting.”

The lobbyists hold little hope for a face-to-face with Obama, but Marlowe said they’d be happy to meet with officials from the Office of Government Ethics.

The outreach to the Obama administration comes at a crucial time for the group, which is in the midst of negotiations among its membership to come up with a set of reforms to the Lobbying Disclosure Act. Not surprisingly, K Street in general, and the league in particular, is not of one mind on how to best regulate the industry.

Some lobbyists favor sweeping efforts to prohibit them from fundraising and giving campaign donations. Others say such measures would kill their businesses by limiting their access to Members of Congress.

There are also disagreements about loopholes in the current lobbying law that allow people such as former Speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), former Senate Majority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.) and former White House Deputy Chief of Staff Steve Ricchetti to escape the branding of being a registered lobbyist while still making a living by representing clients seeking to influence government actions. Ricchetti, of course, was recently named a counselor to Vice President Joseph Biden; he unregistered as a lobbyist — even though he continued to run his government relations firm Ricchetti Inc. — so he would not be subject to Obama’s ban on lobbyists joining his administration.

“You have attacked lobbyists as being the primary source of political dysfunction, yet you have embraced those lobbyists who choose to call themselves consultants, advisors, or any other name besides a lobbyist,” Marlowe wrote in the league’s March 12 letter.

The Obama administration declined to comment as of press time.

One loophole Marlowe said the league wants to close is known as the 20 percent threshold. The LDA allows people to lobby without registering as a federal lobbyist if their influence activities amount to less than 20 percent of their duties for any given client. Some call it a CEO exemption — allowing a top executive to fly into Washington, D.C., for lobbying meetings while not requiring that person to register as a lobbyist. But it also allows high-profile folks with future aspirations for government work or an elected position to keep their advocacy work concealed from public view.

Former Rep. James Walsh (R-N.Y.), a lobbyist with K&L Gates who serves on the league’s board, said he wants to do away with the 20 percent threshold altogether, even if that means a corporate CEO will have to register.

“We just think the administration’s position on lobbying is really working exactly the opposite of what they want,” Walsh said.

Tom Susman, an active ALL member who is director of the American Bar Association’s government affairs office, said  his group came up with a series of lobbying proposals last year that it, too, is urging Congress to adopt. Among its ideas, the ABA has called for a ban on lobbyists fundraising for Members they’ve lobbied in the past two years. That hasn’t gotten much traction on Capitol Hill and isn’t likely to be included in ALL’s recommendations, either.

“I wish I could find someone in Congress as interested as the president,” said Susman, who added that he and Marlowe have met a few times to discuss their respective reform efforts.

“It’s slow, there’s controversy,” Susman said. “None of this to me suggests that nothing can be done.”

Nick Allard, a Democrat who co-runs the lobbying practice at Patton Boggs and helped the ABA draft its proposals, said the president’s rhetoric on lobbyists is counterproductive for both K Street and government.

“It’s like scratching a rash: It feels good for a second but actually makes things worse,” Allard said. “It is not only demonstrably wrong that lobbyists are the cause of all the problems, but it breeds distrust of our government.”

As for the status of the league’s recommended reforms, Marlowe said he has conducted six listening sessions with the organization’s members, as well as two with his board. Meanwhile, an ALL working group is trying to sort through the suggestions and will likely have something ready to unveil next month. The group then plans to lobby Capitol Hill to implement its proposals. And, as the letter says, the league would like to get Obama on board where “common ground exists.”

Noting the internal disagreements,  Marlowe acknowledged that the next month won’t be easy — with or without Obama’s help. Though the league’s membership is mostly unanimous on eliminating the 20 percent loophole, even that proposal is not without dissent. Some lobbyists are concerned about roping in citizen advocates who might come to town as part of corporate or association fly-ins.

“Is it hard? Yeah,” Marlowe said. “Is it doable? Yes, it’s my job.”

Steven T. Dennis contributed to this report.