Today the Washington Post ran a story about how the Obama administration will bar registered lobbyists from sitting on the nearly 1,000 advisory panels to the Federal government. These are panels of subject matter experts with named like the Defense Science Board who conduct studies that the government doesn’t have time to perform, and provide subject-matter expertise the government doesn’t necessarily have.
These new rules about lobbyists sitting on Federal advisory panels will be ineffective at “curbing negative influence” on the government for at least two reasons.
One, lobbying firms will find simple ways around the new rules. They will change people’s job descriptions, alter the number of hours they spend lobbying on behalf of clients, and other maneuveurs to make employees eligible for advisory panels under the new rules, in cases where it is important. Tom Daschle is the ultimate example of effectively lobbying without being an actual registered lobbyist. New people will also be hired as non-lobbyists to sit on these boards in situations where it makes sense to have a presence on them.
Two, unregistered non-lobbyists can be just as influential, devious, and self-interested as registered lobbyists. There are many people who have all kinds of special interests that do and will sit on these boards, and they will use the information they glean from them in ways that may help the country, but may also help them. And a great many of these people work in the private sector. Is there anything wrong with that? Not necessarily, it’s just that it’s not much different than what lobbyists do. And more dangerously, an unregistered non-lobbyist is much closer to a wolf in sheep’s clothing – you don’t see them coming until it’s too late.
My biggest problem with stories like these is that they report the ‘action’ (ban lobbyists) but spend little if any time talking about the ‘reaction’ (skirting the rules to get what you want anyway). But the reaction is at least as important, if not more so. Stories like the one in the Post make me think of a terrorist who defeats a billion dollar spy satellite with a baseball cap.
In government, in business, in life, when the action is high-effort and the reaction is low-effort, it’s a loser.