Obama Cracks Down On Influence Peddling

When President Obama was campaigning for the job, he promised to change the culture of lobbying and influence peddling in Washington. Bob Kaiser is a senior correspondent with The Washington Post and the author of the book So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government. He talks with Renee Montagne about the president's efforts to end influence peddling.

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RENEE MONTAGNE, host:

And as we heard a moment ago, President Obama's Super Bowl Sunday was notable for the guests who joined him to view the game - not just Democrats but Republicans, part of the President's efforts to encourage a spirit of bipartisanship. One thing he's been trying to discourage is the influence peddling that's become part of the culture of lobbying. We're joined by someone who's written about this: Bob Kaiser. His most recent book is "So Damn Much Money: The Triumph of Lobbying and the Corrosion of American Government." We began with President Obama's recent executive order designed to slow the revolving door between the administration and lobbying farms.

Mr. BOB KAISER (Author): It's a significant step, I think. Here's what he said: If you're going to work in my administration, you must sign a binding commitment when you come into it that you will not, after you leave it, turn around and try to become a lobbyist and come back and try to influence my administration's decisions. Now that would really gunk up the revolving door, as we call it in Washington. Many, many people have come to Washington the last 25 years thinking I'm going to work in the government for a couple of years, punch that ticket, and then sell myself as a lobbyist. So this is what Obama is saying: Stop. Let's not do that anymore. And this is a constructive first step.

MONTAGNE: The stimulus package which is beyond $800 billion, whatever it works out to be in the end, it is working its way through Congress. Is this going to be a field day for lobbyists in the end?

Mr. KAISER: This is a very unprecedented, obviously, expenditure of federal dollars, enormous expenditure. And it's inevitable when the government's spending so much money that various interests, individuals, institutions will come in and say, hey, I know how to spend that money. Here's what you ought to do. And that's part of our process. Where it goes wrong is when it becomes this massive industry on which the politicians themselves become largely dependent for a lot of campaign money.

MONTAGNE: Well, right. There is one thing, and that is with some of the bigger, more powerful lobbies, in a sense, they write the laws.

Mr. KAISER: They really do. And the Medicare drug benefit law is a classic example where drug lobbyists, drug company lobbyists, really did write the legislation which the Republicans ran through the House and the Senate. And…

MONTAGNE: Meaning they wrote legislation that meant that the government wouldn't, for instance, negotiate prices.

Mr. KAISER: Exactly.

MONTAGNE: You were speaking, and people do speak of the explosion of the amount of money that changes hands and the culture of lobbying, and it all seems to go back about three decades. What was the thing that made the change, and is there any way to use the knowledge of that to undo it?

Mr. KAISER: This is a very good question, and the answer is it was the vast expansion of the reach of the federal government. The government - from the Great Society, arguably, through Richard Nixon and onward, the government has grown and grown and its impact has grown. And, you know, I think, honestly, we have to accept that this is an inevitable consequence. Lobbying, per se, it seems to me, isn't a horrible thing.

What's bad is when you get all the money greasing the wheels and people doing things more for money than for good public policy reasons. But can we use that knowledge to reverse it? Only by, you know, adopting a very radically different view of what the government's role is, which I don't expect is likely. In fact, what we're seeing right now with this stimulus package is yet another expansion of the government's influence.

MONTAGNE: Bob Kaiser is a senior correspondent at the Washington Post. He wrote an op-ed on the influence of money and politics for yesterday's Outlook section, and it is on the Post Web site now. Thanks very much.

Mr. KAISER: Thank you.

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