John McCain traveled to Colombia this week to promote free trade, and with him went questions surrounding chief strategist and lobbyist Charlie Black. Like more than 100 other McCain staffers and fundraisers, Black's former clients have been scoured for potential embarrassments. Black's extensive ties to that country's oil and textile industries -- and the Chiquita banana story covered here at Huffington Post -- are but the latest examples. Really, now, at a time of soaring trade deficits and economic dislocation here in the United States, Americans could be forgiven for wondering who exactly McCain is representing when he talks to Colombia about trade: voters, or the influential lobbyists who run and raise money for his campaign?
The McCain campaign has brushed off concerns about dual loyalties by noting that, due to what McCain calls the "most comprehensive and most transparent policy concerning lobbyist activities," Black no longer works for BKSH, the firm he co-founded thirty years ago. The policy, which was imposed in May after reports that senior staffers were registered lobbyists for the repressive government of Burma, lays out two simple rules: no staffer may work as a lobbyist while working for the McCain campaign, and any person working in a future McCain administration must agree not to lobby the White House if they leave.
These requirements are window-dressing. They do not address the most fundamental problem with having a campaign run by corporate and foreign lobbyists: most of them have little interest in working inside the White House, and many of them are happy to abandon their lobbying work temporarily if it means building up valuable chits with the potential future president. Under McCain's policy, nothing stops Charlie Black and other lobbyists from cashing in after the campaign by simply returning to their firms and maintaining their ties with the campaign operatives who will find themselves running the administration, should McCain win.
An old Washington hand who has advised, often on a volunteer basis, every Republican presidential nominee since Ronald Reagan, Black has in fact never worked in the White House. Why would he? Once Reagan, George H.W. Bush, and George W. Bush were elected, his own value as a lobbyist increased exponentially, allowing him to market himself as having a direct line to the president of the United States. Over the years, Black has billed millions of dollars, money he could never have earned as a government or administration official.
McCain's policy also does nothing to prevent lobbyists on staff from lining up clients in advance, even overseas in places like Colombia. As long as Black waits until after Election Day to start lobbying in earnest, he is in perfect compliance with McCain's so-called "comprehensive" ethics policy. That's why McCain ought to fire Black.
Black's future earnings from lobbying a McCain White House is not an isolated case, and these matters aren't limited to overseas clients, of course. Research done by Campaign Money Watch revealed that domestic clients have paid McCain's lobbyists nearly half a billion dollars (pdf) in fees in the last ten years.
With these financial stakes at issue, you have to wonder whether the lobbyists are trying to help McCain win because they convinced themselves he'd be good for America, or whether the truth is closer to the fact that it would be good for their bottom line.