The Contemporary Presidency: Changing the Way Washington Works? Assessing President Obama's Battle with Lobbyists

By Thurber, James A. | Presidential Studies Quarterly, June 2011 | Go to article overview

The Contemporary Presidency: Changing the Way Washington Works? Assessing President Obama's Battle with Lobbyists


Thurber, James A., Presidential Studies Quarterly


Widespread scandal and public opinion helped to fuel Senator Barack Obama's nonstop attack on the role of lobbyists in American politics, starting as the ethics and lobbying reform leader in the U.S. Senate, continuing in his 2008 election campaign, and repeated with his sustained attempts as president to change the culture of lobbying and influence in Washington. Lobbying is a profession that has been deeply sullied in the last five years by the illegal actions and conviction of Jack Abramoff, the criminal convictions of Representatives "Duke" Cunningham (bribes for earmarks) and Bob Ney (accepting illegal gifts from lobbyists), the resignation and conviction of Representative Tom DeLay (illegal use of corporate campaign funds from lobbyists), and the conviction (later overturned) of Senator Ted Stevens (illegal gifts from lobbyists), as well as the criminal conviction of five former congressional aides (illegal gifts to members of Congress). More recently in 2009 and 2010, Congressman Charles Rangel (D-NY) was asked to step down as chair of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, and after a lengthy investigation and trial before the House Ethics Committee, he was convicted on 11 counts related to breaking the House ethics gift ban and travel rules associated with lobbyists. In 2009, the House Ethics Committee investigated Representatives Todd Tiahrt (R-KS), Peter Visclosky (D-ID), John Murtha (D-PA), Norm Dicks (D-WA), and Jim Moran (D-VA), all on the House Appropriations Committee, for campaign contributions for earmarks from corporations through PMA, a now defunct lobbying firm owned by a former House Appropriations subcommittee staff director (Milbank 2010).

Are lobbyists distorting what is in the public interest, undermining public trust in government, and ultimately the integrity of American democracy, as argued by Senator/ candidate/President Obama? Has President Obama changed the murky world of the revolving door of lobbyists/advocates in campaigns and government? Has he changed the way Washington works? These are not new questions for Washington; they echo James Madison's lament in the Federalist Papers, Number 10 ([1788] 1962).

   Complaints are everywhere heard from our most considerate and
   virtuous citizens, equally the friends of public and private faith,
   and of public and personal liberty, that our governments are too
   unstable, that the public good is disregarded in the conflicts of
   rival parties, and that measures are too often decided, not
   according to the rules of justice and the rights of the minor
   party, but by the superior force of an interested and overbearing
   majority. However anxiously we may wish that these complaints had
   no foundation, the evidence, of known facts will not permit us to
   deny that they are in some degree true. (79)

President Obama has often prominently paraphrased James Madison's argument in the Federalist Papers, No. 10 that factions or narrow interests undermine the rights of other citizens and that it is the duty of government to regulate the factions so that they do not do harm to others (Madison [1788] 1962, 79). Obama also uses Madisonian arguments when he states that factions (interest groups and lobbyists) are "adverse to the rights of other citizens or the permanent and aggregate interests of the community" (Madison [1788] 1962, 83).

The overwhelming public perception of lobbyists, whether convicted or investigated for malfeasance, is that they are bad, a corrupting influence on government and the way Washington works. The public agrees that lobbyists undermine the rights of other citizens, to summarize Madison. This negative public perception of lobbyists was a major cause of Obama's attacks on them. Fifty-eight percent of the respondents in the 2008 Cooperative Congressional Election Study (CCES) national poll felt Obama would be very likely or somewhat likely to change the way Washington works. …

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The Contemporary Presidency: Changing the Way Washington Works? Assessing President Obama's Battle with Lobbyists
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