Lobbyists Here, Lobbyists There, Lobbyists Everywhere

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Charlie Black is a lobbyist, and he’s kind of a big deal. He runs an entire firm, BKSH & Associates, that represents companies as varied as General Motors, AT&T and the steel industry. He is hard wired to the Republican power grid, the kind of guy who is on the short list people call when they want to find out what is happening in the Bush White House, but can’t get anyone there to talk.

Black is also a senior, unpaid adviser to John McCain, which is a big deal in the current political environment because ever since the 2006 election cycle “lobbyist” has been a sort of rhetorical shorthand for “corruption.” Barack Obama, who has sworn off direct contributions from federal lobbyists, seized on this fact a few days back. “His top advisers in this campaign are lobbyists,” Obama told reporters on Saturday about McCain. “Many of them have been running their business on the campaign bus while they’ve been helping him.”

This quote made headlines all over the place, coming as it did not the heels of a New York Times story that described an apparent favor McCain had done in 2000 on behalf of one lobbyist, who was a friend. But no one seemed to question the veracity of Obama’s claim. In fact, the statement that “many” of McCain’s top advisers are lobbyists, or that “many of them” have been running their lobbying practice from the bus is, well, not that accurate.

There is a single lobbyist, Black, who has admitted that he has made cell phone calls to deal with private client issues from the McCain bus. But that’s it. According to the McCain campaign, there is not a single person on the McCain campaign payroll who also works as a lobbyist. The Obama campaign could not name for me another such individual.

There are, however, other former lobbyists who do work for McCain, people like Rick Davis, the campaign manager, and Mike Dennehy, the political director, as well as other current lobbyists who have unpaid roles, including fundraising for the campaign. But the same can be said for the Obama campaign. Steve Hildebrand, who is Obama’s deputy campaign manager, gave up his job as a lobbyist for Environmental Defense when he joined the Obama campaign. Buffy Wicks, Obama’s western field director, is a former lobbyist for the United Food and Commercial Workers Union.

Obama also has a number of high-profile supporters and unpaid advisers who continue to do the work of lobbyists, though there is no evidence they make cell phone calls from Obama’s bus. Former South Dakota Sen. Tom Daschle, an unpaid adviser to Obama, works as a “special” public policy adviser at the lobbying firm Alston & Bird, though Daschle has not yet officially registered as a lobbyist, in part because he just recently left the Senate. Former South Carolina Gov. Jim Hodges, a national co-chairman of the Obama campaign, oversees a firm, The Hodges Consulting Group, that is registered to lobby. Other lobbyists help raise money for Obama, but they do not contribute themselves.

So to recap: Both campaigns employ former lobbyists. Both campaigns have unpaid advisers who work in the lobbying business. Both campaigns have lobbyists who help raise money. Obama is distinguished by disallowing lobbyists from giving his campaign money directly. McCain is distinguished by having a senior unpaid lobbyist adviser, someone who has made private client calls from the campaign bus.

Both campaigns say they think they can win a debate on lobbyists. “I would dare say there are just as many lobbyists in the Barack Obama camp as there are in ours,” said McCain’s manager, Davis, in a conference call with reporters on Tuesday. “We’re happy to debate ethical standards and commitment to reform and ethics all day long.” The Obama campaign promptly replied. “Barack Obama has done more to curb the influence of special interests and lobbying than any candidate in the race,” wrote spokeswoman Jen Psaki, in an email Tuesday. “As president he will usher in some of the most aggressive ethics reforms to the White House in history.”

That, of course, begs a different question: Who will be a better money-in-politics reformer in office? It’s a healthy debate to have, one I will discuss in a later blog post. Suffice it to say, if Obama and McCain get the nominations, there will be two candidates with clear records of fighting to limit the power of lobbyists in Washington. Hopefully, the debate they have will be a bit more straightforward than Obama’s misleading claim over the weekend.