Protecting the White House from lobbyists is really unnecessary.

Lobbyists Are People, Too

Jonathan Bernstein is a Bloomberg View columnist. He taught political science at the University of Texas at San Antonio and DePauw University and wrote A Plain Blog About Politics.
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How about one cheer -- no, let's make that maybe one-tenth of a cheer -- for a partial reversal (details from Politico's Byron Tau) of one of President Barack Obama's worst ideas: his ban on lobbyists in the administration.

It's a bad idea because "lobbyists" are not, in fact, some sort of universally evil group. They're simply advocates for various interests, some of which are aligned with the Democratic Party. It makes no sense for a Democratic president to refuse to hire, say, someone who lobbied against polluters or for tough civil-rights measures.

It's a bad idea because "lobbyists" are only one group of special interest employees; lots and lots of people who work for special interests are not registered lobbyists, and there's no reason at all to think that those categorized as lobbyists are tainted while the others are fine.

And it's a bad idea because the president must select thousands of people for the White House and for executive branch departments and agencies, and Obama should be finding ways to make that job easier, not more difficult. Normal vetting is perfectly capable of eliminating those who oppose the president's priorities; indeed, the White House could, and should, drastically reduce the hurdles involved in getting a presidential nomination and would still have little trouble avoiding people who are really just plants for interests that the White House opposes.

The truth is that the lobbyist ban is basically just a publicity stunt that has no positive effect but makes the president's job harder. As Tau reports (and as Tim Carney has documented) the eventual policy Obama adopted was full of loopholes and exemptions. Why? Because lots of perfectly good people, who make perfectly good public servants, have served as lobbyists, and when realism set in the administration wanted to hire lots of them. The problem wasn't the exemptions and loopholes; the problem is the policy.

So good for Obama for the partial reversal, but this remains a foolish policy. Hiring policy makers is one of the more important things a president does. Using it as an excuse for cheap publicity points instead of an opportunity to hire the best people for the job is a terrible idea. Even worse, it's reflective of Obama's general disregard for staffing the executive branch. He's been doing better on that recently; eliminating the lobbyist ban altogether would be a better indication that he's learned from his early indifference.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of Bloomberg View's editorial board or Bloomberg LP, its owners and investors.

To contact the author on this story:
Jonathan Bernstein at jbernstein62@bloomberg.net

To contact the editor on this story:
Stacey Shick at sshick@bloomberg.net