As the wider world awaits Hillary Clinton’s confirmation of her 2016 intentions, Democratic lobbyists in Washington are fixated on a far narrower concern: Will Clinton let them back into the money game?
For six years, the party’s “advocacy class” has been shut out of the highest level of political fundraising due to President Barack Obama’s ban on lobbyist and corporate PAC donations to his campaigns. It’s one of the few areas where the president’s anti-special-interest rules actually have stuck, if only because it would have been so easy for the news media or opponents to catch a violation and generate a headline.
Obama raised record amounts in both campaigns, and rewards and access flowed to big bundlers who tapped their personal networks to generate contributions. But some of Washington’s biggest Democratic lobbyists found themselves locked out of big- donor events such as private briefings from senior campaign aides, small gatherings with the party’s presidential nominee and a shot at a prestigious ambassadorship. The snub left many lobbyists seething at their diminished status.
The Clintons, who have never viewed the advocacy community with the disdain expressed by Obama or Sen. Elizabeth Warren, D-Mass., could end the exile. “A lot of those lobbyists, whether you like it or not, represent real Americans,” Hillary Clinton said in August 2007. In 2008, at least 22 registered lobbyists, including Heather Podesta, Lanny Davis and Geraldine Ferraro, were among Clinton’s bundlers, according to Public Citizen.
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Ready for Hillary, a super-PAC that has been laying the foundation for a Clinton presidential campaign, already accepts cash from K Street. More than 60 lobbyists have donated to the organization, according to data compiled for Bloomberg View by the Center for Responsive Politics. However, the group’s total contributions from lobbyists — about $90,000 so far — amount to a fraction of the almost $13 million the super-PAC has raised.
If Clinton brings lobbyists in from the cold, however, she could face a backlash in her party. She already faces scrutiny for foreign donations, including from Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, to the Bill, Hillary & Chelsea Clinton Foundation. (The foundation, which limited such contributions while Clinton was Secretary of State, announced this month that it will reconsider its policies if Clinton runs for president.)
Lifting Obama’s lobbyist ban risks exposing her to criticism about her political donors, as well. “Income inequality will be the defining issue of the 2016 election, and one of the reasons people are excited about getting Elizabeth Warren into the race is she’s been willing to confront powerful corporate interests and say, ‘No, I am going to be the line in the sand between you and the government you want to control,’” said Neil Sroka, spokesman for Democracy for America, a group trying to draft the Warren into the 2016 Democratic primary. “The easiest way to show you will stand up and confront those powerful interests is to say, ‘I won’t take your money.’”
A lobbyist close to the Clintons contends that Obama’s campaign ban never made sense, in part because lobbyists donated to Obama’s re-election super-PAC, Priorities USA Action, and the campaign itself took donations from family members of lobbyists. In addition, some White House staff who left for lobbying firms simply adopted titles other than “lobbyist” — such as “strategic adviser” — in order to skirt Obama’s blockade on the revolving door.
Yet a Feb. 24 appearance by Warren on MSNBC’s Morning Joe suggests at least one influential Democrat may not be so nonchalant about resuming the old ways.
“Washington works great,” Warren said, “for people who can hire armies of lobbyists and lawyers. If you are a giant corporation, this place is working for you.”
Addressing working families, Warren added, “Eh, it’s not working so great for you.”
Jeanne Cummings writes on money, lobbying and politics.
© 2015, Bloomberg News.