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Reform, with an asterisk

McCain and Obama are trying to avoid the taint of lobbyists. It's easier said than done.

May 26, 2008|Tom Hamburger, Chuck Neubauer and Janet Hook | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — As John McCain and Barack Obama intensify their battle for the White House, they are competing for the mantle of reform, with each claiming that he has done the most to shield his campaign from the taint of lobbyists.

But the strategists behind those efforts are senior aides with a more-than-passing resemblance to -- what else? -- lobbyists.

Obama is well ahead of McCain in restricting lobbyist participation in his campaign. But the history of both candidates is peppered with campaign operatives, policy advisors and others who have clear links to the long-standing but often scandal-tinged practice of making money by trying to influence politicians.

The campaigns have begun attacking each other about lobbyist ties -- and who is doing the most to limit them -- after the resignation of several senior McCain advisors in the last two weeks due to their lobbying involvement, including work for foreign regimes.

Two McCain staffers who have lobbied on behalf of controversial foreign clients are leading the high-profile drive to rid his campaign of lobbyists. And Obama's reformer image has been fostered in part by a Chicago political consultant with a sideline in so-called grass-roots lobbying for corporate clients -- though the consultant vehemently denies being a lobbyist and says he never provided access to nor approached an officeholder.

Both candidates can boast of accomplishments in passing ethics reform legislation. Yet the challenge they face in separating their campaigns from lobbyists illustrates how difficult it is for any ambitious national politician to declare independence from Washington's K Street culture and the interests that underlie it.

That's especially true of politicians seeking the White House. After all, it's the lobbying firms and related enterprises -- politically oriented law firms, research organizations and advertising shops -- that know how to run a high-tech voter mobilization drive, develop a hard-hitting radio spot and raise the millions of dollars necessary to wage a strong campaign.

The revolving door connecting politics and interest-group advocacy is a Washington institution. For aspiring Democrats and Republicans alike, serving as a senior aide to a prominent politician is one of the main career paths for a lucrative career in lobbying -- and vice versa.

What McCain and Obama set out to do seems simple enough: ban lobbyists from their campaign staffs, thereby appealing to voters who have grown cynical in the wake of endless scandals involving politicians doing favors for lobbyists who plied them with campaign contributions.

Sen. Obama (D-Ill.) adopted such a standard when he launched his White House bid last year. Obama says that he now has no federal lobbyists on his campaign payroll and accepts no donations from lobbyists -- what would be a historic standard for a major-party presidential nominee.

Sen. McCain (R-Ariz.), eager to compete as a reformer but stung by the disclosure of some of his aides' lobbying clients, announced his own policy this month: He too now bars lobbyists from staff positions. He will, however, continue to accept donations from them.

Unlike Obama, he also requires volunteer advisors to the campaign to disclose any lobbying ties and to agree not to lobby the candidate nor his Senate staff during the campaign.

While McCain and Obama exchanged barbs last week, it was McCain who was on the defensive after the resignation of five of his aides. They included a key fundraiser, Tom Loeffler, a former congressman who lobbied for corporate clients and the government of Saudi Arabia. Two other aides left after revelations that their lobbying firm had once represented the military government of Burma, now known as Myanmar.

In the Obama campaign, top strategist David Axelrod is an owner of a political consulting firm in Chicago and also is a partner in a company that specializes in what BusinessWeek magazine described as "astroturfing," also called grass-roots lobbying. It has organized campaigns to build public support to influence state and local government decisions, sometimes working with corporate-backed "citizen organizations" that espouse the company's point of view.

Axelrod's company, ASK Public Strategies, has practiced this sort of targeted advertising and outreach in several states, working for corporate clients such as Madison Square Garden LP in New York and Commonwealth Edison, an electric utility in Illinois.

A few years ago, when the power company faced a government decision on whether to extend a rate freeze, Axelrod's firm developed radio and TV ads sponsored by a ComEd-funded group called Consumers Organized for Reliable Electricity. The ads warned of potential California-style electrical blackouts in Illinois if the rate freeze were extended.

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