Mitt Romney and Newt Gingrich tangled Monday night over whether the former House speaker engaged in "influence peddling," was a citizen publicly advocating for a certain position, or a "consultant" skirting lobbying disclosure rules.
Romney charged Gingrich with effectively lobbying on behalf of Freddie Mac, despite not having registered. Gingrich responded with a telling admission: That he hired lobbying disclosure experts to study the regulations and advise him of what he could and couldn't do in order to legally avoid registering as a lobbyist. The reason he didn't want to register, he said, was to avoid being accused later of influence peddling.
"I think it's pretty clear to say that i have never, ever gone and done any lobbying. In fact, we brought in an expert on lobbying law and trained all of our staff -- and the expert is prepared to testify that he was brought in to say, here is the bright line between what you can do as a citizen and what you do as a lobbyist. For 12 years consistently running four small businesses, we stayed away from lobbying precisely because I thought this kind of defamatory and factually false charge would be made," said Gingrich.
Gingrich had previously claimed that Freddie Mac hired him as a "historian," but he may be the first historian in history to have hired a consultant to make sure his historical work didn't accidentally drift into the legal definition of lobbying.
The Gingrich campaign quickly blasted out a release calling the candidate a "small businessman," but few small businessmen would see the need to hire such a consultant, either.
The conversation quickly moved past Gingrich's admission, however.
"What's the gross revenue of Bain in the years you were associated with it? What's the gross revenue?" Gingrich asked Romney.
"Very substantial. But I think it's irrelevant compared with the fact you were working for Freddie Mac," he said.
"Wait a minute. Very substantial? Does Bain do any work with companies that did work ... with Medicare, Medicaid?" Gingrich challenged.
Romney categorically denied it. "We didn't do any work with the government. I didn't have an office on K Street. I wasn't a lobbyist. I've never worked in Washington. We have congressman who say you lobbied them," he said.
"I didn't lobby them," Gingrich said.
"We have congressmen who say you lobbied them with regard to Medicare Part D," Romney followed up.
"Whoa, whoa. You just jumped a long way over here, friend," Gingrich said, becoming agitated that the conversation moved from Freddie Mac to Medicare. Gingrich paused for an uncomfortably long time before delivering a stemwinder.
"Let me be very clear," he said, "because I understand your technique which you used on [John] McCain, you used on [Mike] Huckabee. You have used consistently. It's unfortunate and it's not going to work well because the American people see through it. I have always publicly favored a stronger Medicare program. I wrote a book in 2002 called 'Saving Lives and Saving Money.' I publicly favored Medicare Part D for a practical reason. That reason is simple. The U.S. government was not prepared to give people anything -- insulin, for example -- but they would pay for kidney dialysis. They weren't prepared to give Lipitor, but they would pay for open heart surgery. That is a terrible way to run Medicare. I'll say this in Florida. I'm proud that I publicly advocated Medicare Part D. It saved lives. It's run on a free enterprise model, includes health savings accounts and includes Medicare alternatives which gave people choices. And I did it publically and it is not correct, Mitt. I'm saying it flatly because you have been walking around this state saying things that are untrue. It is not correct to describe public citizenship having public advocacy as lobbying. Every citizen has the right to do it."