Is Obama breaking his no-lobbyist pledge?

The president wouldn't speak to lobbyists at a Democratic fundraiser, but they were giving plenty anyway

By Alex Koppelman

Published June 19, 2009 8:35PM (EDT)

When he was on the campaign trail, President Obama made a big deal about his pledge not to accept money from lobbyists, and to keep them out of his administration. But he hasn't been perfect about keeping the latter promise, and a fundraiser he spoke at Thursday night is raising new questions about the degree of his commitment regarding lobbyists' donations.

Obama was at the Mandarin Oriental hotel in Washington, D.C. on Thursday for the Democratic Party's two congressional campaign committees. According to the White House, the speech was OK'ed on the condition that no one registered as a federal lobbyist could attend; that would have meant taking their money, as tickets were going for $5,000 a month.

Undoubtedly, then, Obama was keeping to the letter of his promise. The spirit, though? That's another question.

As the New York Times reports, on Friday morning there was another fundraiser held at the same hotel for the same party committees. Obama wasn't there, but lobbyists were -- and they were asked to contribute $5,000 for the privilege.

If you're thinking the 12 hour separation between events is basically a distinction without a difference, you're not alone. White House Press Secretary Robert Gibbs got several questions about it at his Thursday briefing. Asked whether Obama, as a candidate, would have found all this hypocritical, Gibbs responded, "We stand by what we said in the campaign, and we haven't changed that policy now that we're here. So I think the President has been consistent, has taken steps, both in the Senate and as a candidate and as a President, to reduce the influence of special interests in Washington .... We're not taking their money."

Of course, like the anti-earmark fervor that's already swept Washington, this particular pledge tends to be a lot of sound without all that much fury. There are lots of ways to stick to the letter of the promise without sacrificing much financially. Even during the campaign, pointed out, "Obama's policy of not taking money from lobbyists is a bit of hair-splitting. It's true that he doesn't accept contributions from individuals who are registered to lobby the federal government. But he does take money from their spouses and from other individuals at firms where lobbyists work." Besides, the list of registered lobbyists doesn't really include everyone who's actually lobbying. Some people, like former Sen. Tom Daschle, Obama's mentor and one-time nominee to head Health and Human Services, use loopholes in the law to avoid registering.

Alex Koppelman

Alex Koppelman is a staff writer for Salon.

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