TOPICS > Politics

Links to Lobbyists Pose Questions for Campaigns

May 20, 2008 at 6:20 PM EST
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The role played by lobbyists in each of the top three campaigns for president has become a hot button issue as the race to raise campaign cash gains intensity. Analysts debate the role of lobbyists in campaigns and why the lobbying trade has taken on new scrutiny.
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JUDY WOODRUFF: Next, lobbyists and presidential candidates, the not-so-strange bedfellows. Gwen Ifill has the story.

GWEN IFILL: The role played by lobbyists in each of the top three campaigns for president has become a recurring thorn in the candidates’ sides.

In recent weeks, five advisers to Republican John McCain have been forced to resign because of ties to controversial clients and causes.

McCain, who gained a reputation on Capitol Hill as an anti-lobbying reformer, last week decided to bar registered lobbyists from direct campaign employment and require part-time volunteers to disclose their lobbying clients.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN (R), Arizona: We wanted to make sure that there was an effective, comprehensive, and transparent policy towards lobbying, the most comprehensive and transparent of any presidential campaign in history. And I challenge Senator Obama to adopt the same policy.

GWEN IFILL: At a rally in Montana yesterday, Democrat Barack Obama focused on what he claims are conflicts of interest.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA (D), Illinois: The fact is, John McCain’s campaign is being run by Washington lobbyists and paid for with their money. Senator McCain has been a candidate in this race for more than a year, but it’s only within the last few days, when stories surfaced publicly about his lobbyist aides and their clients, that Senator McCain take any action to curb their role.

GWEN IFILL: Obama has made lobbying reform a central component of his “change” message, constantly reminding voters that lobbyists don’t run or finance his campaign. But Obama’s campaign does count many lobbyists among its unpaid advisers.

Hillary Clinton does employ lobbyists on her campaign, including top strategist Mark Penn, and she said last year she would continue to accept contributions from them.

SEN. HILLARY CLINTON (D), New York: I will, because, you know, a lot of those lobbyists, whether you like it or not, represent real Americans. They actually do. They represent nurses. They represent, you know, social workers. Yes, they represent corporations that employ a lot of people.

GWEN IFILL: Obama, however, has repeatedly used the issue to argue Clinton would be the weaker candidate.

SEN. BARACK OBAMA: If there are voters who are sick of a Washington that is dominated by special interests and lobbyists, and John McCain comes in with a reputation for being a reformer, who matches up better in that debate about who can clean up Washington, somebody who has not taken PAC money, has not taken federal lobbyists’ money, who has passed the toughest ethics reform legislation since Watergate, who has reform credentials that are at least as strong, if not stronger than John McCain, or somebody who has said that they don’t think lobbyists are a problem?

GWEN IFILL: For McCain, the issue has hovered for some time. In February, the New York Times raised questions about his relationship with a telecommunications industry lobbyist. McCain dismissed the report.

SEN. JOHN MCCAIN: I have a long record, as I said, a 50-year record, a 24-year record as a member of Congress. And I’m confident that my record will be reviewed.

There are many people who have dealt with me who are now stepping forward and talking about how fairly and objectively I ran the Commerce Committee and the leadership I’ve shown in many reform issues, including my opposition to earmark and pork-barrel spending.

So I’ll be asking people to look at my entire record, and I think that that will stand.

GWEN IFILL: One indication of how difficult it can be to separate lobbyists from politics in Washington, McCain’s campaign manager, Rick Davis, who is enforcing the new lobbyist ban, and senior strategist Charles Black, who is defending it, have themselves worked as lobbyists.

So why have lobbyists and the work they do become a campaign hot button? For opposing views, we turn to Joan Claybrook, the president of Public Citizen, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group, and Paul Miller, former president of the American League of Lobbyists. He now owns his own lobbying shop, Miller/Wenhold Capitol Strategies.

Lobbyists influence politicians

Joan Claybrook
Public Citizen
It's not just favors, per se, but it's a circle: get money, do favors, get money, do favors. And so that sets the policy of the Congress, sets the policy of the presidential efforts and term.

GWEN IFILL: Joan Claybrook, why does it matter whether campaigns employ or take advice from lobbyists or not?

JOAN CLAYBROOK, Public Citizen: Well, because lobbyists give money, as well as lobby. And members of Congress and presidential candidates are likely to listen to the lobbyists. They're very smart; they know what's going on.

But, also, the lobbyists raise money for them. And when they raise money, then the candidates often will listen to them and give them -- and particularly when they become a member of Congress or become a president -- they'll listen to them and they'll do favors for them.

And it's not just favors, per se, but it's a circle: get money, do favors, get money, do favors. And so that sets the policy of the Congress, sets the policy of the presidential efforts and term.

And so what we're concerned about as public interest lobbyists is we don't give money. We just argue the merits. We think that the merits ought to be what determines the policies of the United States. And that's why we favor public funding of elections.

GWEN IFILL: Paul Miller, is there always a quid pro quo like she describes?

PAUL MILLER, American League of Lobbyists: No, what Joan just described is no different than what the American people are doing as a whole. Mr. Obama talks about the number of people on the grassroots side of it who donated to his campaign.

People support candidates because they believe in the issues. That's no different than lobbyists do. They represent various interests, and those interests are before members of Congress. They just can't afford themselves the opportunity to be here, so they do hire professional lobbyists.

Yes, we do donate campaign contributions, and many members ask us to raise money. That's, I think, a part of this hypocrisy that we're seeing now.

Remember, all these candidates who talk about change are the pulling the old playbooks from the past of gutter politics of saying now, in order to win the election, we need to bash lobbyists. But yet tomorrow they'll call us and ask for campaign contributions.

GWEN IFILL: You're saying that Barack Obama is asking for campaign contributions as he's saying this?

PAUL MILLER: He will say, "I don't take money from PACs or federal lobbyists." But if you look, he has taken money from state lobbyists, I am told. And if you -- he is not taking it from us, but he'll take it from my wife. He'll ask people like us to help them raise money from our clients and things of that nature. So the money's not just coming from average Joe citizen.

'Crooked system' tied to campaigns

Paul Miller
Miller/Wenhold Capitol Strategies
Anybody who wants to come here, anybody can contribute money to a campaign. Anybody can come here and spend time lobbying members of Congress.

GWEN IFILL: Let's go back to the money a moment and talk about the job it is that lobbyists do. We heard Hillary Clinton say some of these people are representing nurses, some of these people are representing causes which no one has -- which aren't necessarily partisan causes. What's wrong with that?

JOAN CLAYBROOK: Well, the issue is the money. The real issue here is the money, and so that's why there needs to be public funding of elections, because if you have public funding of elections, then the members of Congress or presidents don't spend all their time raising money. They don't incur the obligation to listen to, give access to the lobbyists.

GWEN IFILL: But didn't the Supreme Court say that money is a free speech issue?

JOAN CLAYBROOK: Well, they said it, but I don't think most Americans believe that, because most Americans can't afford to give money for campaign contributions...

PAUL MILLER: But it's not true. If you...

JOAN CLAYBROOK: ... and most Americans don't get to lobby. They don't have fly-ins like the trucking industry did this week so that the CEOs can come in and try and get larger trucks. And they fly in on all their corporate aircraft and lobby the members of Congress, and then they give them campaign contributions. And they've got a done deal.

And that's the problem for the consumer and for the average citizen, even for the union members. They would favor public funding of elections.

GWEN IFILL: You have to admit that the point of giving money for a lobbyist is to get a lawmaker's ear.

PAUL MILLER: But that's no different than anybody in the public. Anybody who wants to come here, anybody can contribute money to a campaign. Anybody can come here and spend time lobbying members of Congress.

You can't ask a family or a nurse from California to fly here and spend as much time as we do lobbying on a particular issue. That's why they belong to their national associations.

And these fly-ins we talked about, this isn't for the big CEOs to come here and bribe members of Congress. These are from the large to the small groups who are spending a lot of time flying their members in here each and every year, each and every week during the July summer recess time periods, to meet with staff to talk about the issues. This isn't about corporate CEOs.

GWEN IFILL: Assume for a moment that this is really about someone representing a point of view and going to be heard on Capitol Hill. Is there something wrong with that kind of influence? Are not lawmakers supposed to be there to hear the concerns of the people?

JOAN CLAYBROOK: Oh, absolutely. It's a constitutional right to lobby. I'm a lobbyist. I'm a registered lobbyist. I think it's a constitutional right to lobby.

But the issue is that when you lobby and you also give money, then you do have a superior position in the members' minds, because they're always going to pay attention to getting money for their next election. It's a crooked system; it shouldn't exist.

Public 'excluded' by big lobbies

Joan Claybrook
Public Citizen
The reason this is a hot-button issue is because the public knows that when lobbyists are hired to represent certain interests that the public gets excluded and they're less likely to win on a policy issue.

GWEN IFILL: Well, let's just talk about lobbying in the context for a moment of this campaign.

JOAN CLAYBROOK: OK. OK.

GWEN IFILL: We have John McCain, who has let go lobbyists because of who they represented, not because of the money necessarily that they gave, but because they represented Saudi Arabia or they represented other foreign governments.

The same thing has happened in other campaigns. Hillary Clinton's chief strategist was lobbying on behalf of the government of Colombia. Is that in itself a problem, money aside?

JOAN CLAYBROOK: Well, I think that the real problem is, is that the public knows that they're excluded. They're excluded when the big lobbyists get paid, you know, tens of millions of dollars to lobby for certain special interests that can afford to hire them.

So it's not only the campaign money. It's what it costs to hire a lobbyist. And so they come back year after year after year to see the member of Congress or the presidential candidates, and they get special access, because they're there.

GWEN IFILL: What about that? Is there people who get heard, there are people who don't?

PAUL MILLER: No, this is a misnomer. Anybody in this country who wants a lobbyist can find one. There's a lot of firms, including ours, who do pro bono work for those folks and groups in this country who can't afford a lobbyist.

I have to admit you have to know about how to find one. That's easy enough. You go on the Internet; you can find any lobbyist you want. But to say that lobbyists are getting paid tens of millions of dollars is inaccurate, because there's a lot of firms like ours who represent small companies, seniors groups, and those folks don't have millions of dollars to spend on lobbying campaigns.

JOAN CLAYBROOK: OK, hundreds of thousands. I mean, more money than anybody else in the American public do.

The reason this is a hot-button issue is because the public knows that when lobbyists are hired to represent certain interests that the public gets excluded and they're less likely to win on a policy issue.

The issue here is the policy, the end policy that's adopted. And when you have bailouts of mortgage companies, but not of people who had been ripped up by the mortgage companies themselves, that's because the mortgage companies have lobbyists who are paid a lot of money, they give money to the members of Congress, and they come in, and they make their case.

Renouncing lobbyists unfeasible

Paul Miller
Miller/Wenhold Capitol Strategies
I would say to candidates, if you have a true feeling that lobbyists are the problem in Washington, yes, don't have lobbyists work on your campaign, but don't turn around and then ask us for money. Let's go and take the money out of this then.

GWEN IFILL: Let's talk about the practicality of this for a moment of people running for president, deciding they want nothing to do, washing their hands completely of lobbyists. In a city like Washington, where so many people either were or are or may become lobbyists -- you say you're one, you're one -- is that practical, even, to say, "You cannot work in my campaign"?

PAUL MILLER: You can. I'm not sure it's that practical. I mean, you look at all three candidates. They all have paid or volunteer lobbyists working for them. There's about 14,000 of us here in the Washington, D.C., area on the federal level.

I would say to candidates, if you have a true feeling that lobbyists are the problem in Washington, yes, don't have lobbyists work on your campaign, but don't turn around and then ask us for money. Let's go and take the money out of this then...

JOAN CLAYBROOK: I agree with that.

GWEN IFILL: You agree.

PAUL MILLER: If you think we're the evil here in Washington, then don't come and ask us for money. Don't take money from my wife. Don't take money from my clients. And return the money that you've taken from lobbyists and their clients and then the problem has solved, but you're not going to see tomorrow a candidate say, "I am returning any campaign contributions."

GWEN IFILL: Is this a completely inside-the-Beltway conversation?

PAUL MILLER: Yes.

GWEN IFILL: Do people who are going to vote tonight and in other states, are they saying, "Gosh, I really hate those lobbyists?" Or is it a code for something else larger?

PAUL MILLER: This is not what the American people are talking about. They're talking about jobs. They're talking about health care. They're talking about gas prices.

This is a non-issue that somebody is now trying to make because this is the fear factor. We get closer to the elections. It started sooner than normal. We are now going to bash lobbyists because it suits us.

JOAN CLAYBROOK: But let's ask why we don't have health care and let's ask why we don't have lower gas prices.

PAUL MILLER: Absolutely.

JOAN CLAYBROOK: Because the lobbyists have stopped it. Look what the auto industry did on fuel economy. Look what the American Medical Association and the insurance industry have done on health care.

We tried to get it first in 1948. This is 2008. For 50 years, we haven't had health care in this country because of lobbyists.

PAUL MILLER: But the last time...

JOAN CLAYBROOK: And the public understand and know that, and they know that this system excludes them, excludes the things they really care about. And that's why you have to have a whole revolution in the way that we do business on public policy.

PAUL MILLER: But I'm not...

GWEN IFILL: Final word.

PAUL MILLER: If you look at it, I'm not elected to Congress. I'm not in the White House. I'm not signing legislation into law. And I'm not going to the House and Senate and voting yea or nay on legislation.

So if we don't have health care, if we don't have an energy policy, blame members of Congress, blame the administration. Don't blame lobbyists, because, yes, we are paid, we go and meet with members of Congress and their staff to educate them, but we're not buying them and we're not the problem with this problem.

JOAN CLAYBROOK: And you are the mother's milk of politics, and that's how they get elected: by your money.

GWEN IFILL: We're going to leave it there for tonight, Paul Miller, Joan Claybrook, thank you both very much.

PAUL MILLER: We do really get along at times.