Shakespeare's famous line about lawyers could easily be adapted for this year's campaign: "The first thing we do, let's purge all the lobbyists." The presidential contest in recent days has degenerated into a competition between Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., over which one reviles lobbyists more and relies on them less. The McCain campaign has been tossing overboard a lobbyist a day to comply with an antilobbyist policy written by, yes, its lobbyist-turned-campaign manager. The Obama campaign seized on the issue to portray the McCain campaign as bought and paid for by lobbyists, then found itself under fire for having a looser policy than the McCain campaign when it comes to lobbyists who volunteer for campaign work.
This is, as we suspect both candidates know, a silly exercise. Lobbyists are a symptom of a larger problem that can't be fixed by turning them into political pariahs. The real problem is the distorting influence on public policy of moneyed interests; lobbyists are merely a particularly efficient delivery vehicle for the money that candidates need to satisfy their fundraising habits. The most effective cure would be to free lawmakers of this addiction by providing for public financing of campaigns, a solution that is, admittedly, a long way off.
In the meantime, then, does it make sense to reject, as Obama has in this campaign but did not previously, contributions from lobbyists? Is there really a difference between a lobbyist for a pharmaceutical company who bundles $100,000 in contributions for a candidate and the nonlobbyist CEO of the same company who puts together a fundraiser that brings in the same amount? It's hard to see how the candidate is less indebted to a "special interest" in one situation than in the other.
Similarly, why is it acceptable for a lobbyist to work for the campaign — but only, as the Obama campaign would have it, on a volunteer basis? If the lobbyist's secret goal is to insinuate himself or herself into the campaign's good graces and then push the client's agenda, volunteering would, if anything, be more nefarious. Are some lobbyists — for favored causes? for unions? — more equal, or at least less odious, than others?
It's helpful to remember that the Constitution contemplates lobbyists; the First Amendment protects "the right … to petition the government for a redress of grievances." In today's Washington, the people who are most skilled at getting people elected tend to spend the off-years applying the same set of skills to getting legislation passed or regulations written — and, yes, lobbying some of the very people whom they helped get elected. No matter who wins, it's likely that some of the people staffing the next administration will have been lobbyists. It's no accident that Obama dropped a line from his stump speech declaring that lobbyists "will not get a job in my White House." At bottom, an administration's policies, pro- or anti-industry, are determined by the president, not by lobbyists who may or may not be brought on board.
The activities of lobbyists do need to be disclosed and regulated — and, as it happens, both Obama and McCain have impressive records on this score. As an Illinois state senator, Obama helped pass a far-reaching measure to tighten lobbying rules. McCain's focus on the activities of Jack Abramoff did more to reveal the dark side of lobbying than any previous congressional investigation. Both senators worked to pass a lobbying reform bill that cracked down on the kind of lavish, lobbyist-funded trips that were an Abramoff specialty; the measure will, when it is finally implemented, require lobbyists to disclose the contributions they bundle for lawmakers. Why not hold a serious conversation about what more should be done — such as stricter recusal rules, as Obama has suggested, for lobbyists who go to work for the executive branch, or longer cooling-off periods for those heading through the revolving door. That would be more useful than the current program of cheap shots.