Wednesday, February 04, 2009

Lobbyists and Ethics

I'm a bit disappointed by how the Obama administration is handling its policy on lobbyists. They've already given a waiver to a guy who lobbied for Raytheon to be a Deputy Secretary of Defense, another for a guy to be the Assistant Press Secretary (I believe), and, of course, as is now big news, Tom Daschle, the pick for Secretary of Health & Human Services, was essentially a lobbyist since his ouster from the Senate.

I've heard a lot of commentators on NPR note that "You don't want to pass up the right person just because they were a lobbyist. Your rules can't be so inflexible," or something to that effect.


Here's the problem with what that line of thinking, which is the one the administration is taking. The problem is that if you give waivers to former lobbyists because they are "the right people," then you take away the disincentive for those people to become lobbyists even if they want to serve in government in the future. And then you won't really be keeping lobbyists out of government because everyone you want will have been a lobbyist and you'll still end up waivering them. Only by taking it on the chin, and being willing to sacrifice in having to give up some of the people you want, and not hire any lobbyists can you actually change the revolving door of lobbyists in government. Because then you have created a true disincentive for people who want to serve in the future from taking lobbying jobs, and then you won't have to waiver people all the time and moot your anti-lobbyist policy. Because the "right people" won't have been lobbyists.

But if you start off, right off the bat, not taking a hard line and making exceptions, then no one is going to take the new policy seriously, no one will be deterred from becoming a lobbyist, and nothing in Washington culture changes. A radical policy change like this won't work unless, at least at first, you really stick to it, to the letter. If you are wishy-washy, then everyone knows you're not serious and that when push comes to shove, you're going to do what everyone else does and pick the person you want regardless.

Some people are saying that Obama is now "being confronted with the reality" and seeing that he can't really do what he said he would in his high-flying campaign rhetoric. But that doesn't make any sense at all. Anyone could have seen that putting a 'no lobbyist' policy into effect and actually sticking to it would have a cost. There would be some pain. I knew it. Obama should have known it. And he shouldn't have said he would keep lobbyists out of his administration if he hadn't already weighed the cost and decided to pay it. The "reality" here isn't a surprise and should have been easily foreseen and considered.

Of course, there's always the possibility that, in fact, Obama did make that calculation and then changed his mind after he won. I wouldn't be happy if that were the case, and I doubt we will ever know, but it wouldn't be surprising, either. It's a well-known and common psychological phenomena that you truly believe one thing at one time, say, when you are in a campaign to become President, that just doesn't seem as important anymore once you aren't worried about winning and losing. Because, as someone who isn't President, you of course look askance at the President hiring lobbyists, and worry if that will create conflicts of interest. But once you are President, you know (you feel) that, of course, that's true for other people who become President and hire lobbyists, but that your own motives are pure, so it's okay for you to do it.

But, of course, that's what every President thinks, what everyone thinks when it's them and not someone else. Everyone thinks everything is different when it's themselves. When you are in charge of the Home Owner's Association (HOA), of course you think the HOA works impartially and anyone who complains about their treatment is a whiner. But when someone else in charge of it, suddenly you realize that HOA has too much power and that the fine they just gave you wasn't fair...

But I do give Obama credit for admitting that he "screwed up" and taking responsibility for the poor choices he made in some of his choices for appointments. Conservatives are crowing all over the internet right now about it and acting as if somehow this is a bad thing. But it isn't. Conservatives seem to forget that one of things that most frustrated liberals during Bush's regime was that he never took responsibility and never admitted he was wrong. Which meant there was no chance of him changing failed policies. Obama admitting he "screwed up" doesn't mean Obama is a hypocrite and that liberals were taken by him. It means he realizes he fell short of what he said he would do and knows it. Hopefully he will do better. But, if nothing else, at least we know he knows he made a mistake. That's pretty earth-shattering at this point after the last eight years.

Still, I think he should reassess these waivers. Sure, some people say that now we need the best people and can't afford to turn people away, but there will always be a reason to say that. Crises are the best times to change things, and I think Obama may regret squandering this opportunity to make lasting change.


At 5:51 PM, Blogger R. Paul Wiegand said...

I'm not sure how much of a disincentive not being available for public office is for most lobbyists, but I think we are more in agreement here than disagreement.

I would go farther, though: I'm unhappy with the way Obama has handled his appointments in general. Clinton is a qualified politician, but SoS? Surely we can all agree that this is the result of the backroom discussions pre-Clinton-withdrawl.

Likewise, Richardson is a capable man, but Commerce? Ironically, I think he'd be a better SoS than Commerce secretary ... AND a better one than Clinton. These are political payback appointments, and they annoy me.

Then Daschle and Geithner raise the question of vetting, or at least sound judgment. When Holder turns out to be relatively effortless compared to your other picks, you've got a problem.

I'll give him points for moving swiftly and decisively in transition, but there's a serious deduction for just plain bad planning.

Moreover, I do not buy the line by Daschle or Obama's administration (or De Mint) that Daschle's withdrawal has any kind of a silver lining. A long, ugly fight (if won) would have vanished from the public awareness in a matter of months. Now it becomes yet another "fumble," the perception of which (compounded on others) will have longer impact, in my opinion.

Moreover, it allows Republicans all sorts of free "business as usual" pot-shots at Obama that he might have sloughed off as "Partisan attacks" if not for the withdrawal.

I'll rant more on that in your De Mint post after I finish ranting here.

But, like you, I was very pleased to here a simple "I screwed up" from the President. After eight years of an administration that wouldn't admit fault when they are standing in front of the graffiti with a dripping paint brush in their hands, it's most welcome to be treated like an adult for a change.

At 7:09 AM, Blogger mooglar said...

Yeah, I don't know why Obama's team, which ran should a tight campaign, did such a bad job of vetting its nominees. I was okay with the Richardson and Clinton picks, though, once again, they must not have properly vetted Richardson.

It is weird that Daschle withdrew his name, I agree. He would have ultimately been confirmed; and, as you say, it would have been forgotten pretty quickly. Clinton fucked up his first appointments terribly at the beginning of his first term but no one really remembers it much now.

His withdrawal would have a silver lining if Obama had asked him to withdraw, because then Obama could get credit for standing by his ethics and all that. But, since Daschle chose to withdraw, he's mostly not even getting credit for that (though DeMint gave him a little).


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