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Zephyr Teachout

Zephyr Teachout

Posted: February 8, 2008 01:48 AM

Obama and Lobbyists Like Me


Obama, oddly, is sending me money. I got a letter from Alexa Chappell yesterday, Deputy Director of Compliance of the Obama Campaign, with a check inside for $100, made out to me:

Thank you for your recent contribution to Obama for America. Unfortunately, our records indicate that you are currently registered as a lobbyist of the federal government. Obama for America's policy is not to accept contributions from federal lobbyists. Therefore, we must return your contribution, which you will find enclosed.....

It's true. Last January, as the National Director of the Sunlight Foundation, I made calls to several congressional offices to push for the Sunlight legislative platform (putting bills online before the vote, etc), and consistent with Sunlight's commitment to internal transparency, I registered as a lobbyist, even though it was not legally required. My lobbying career lasted just a few weeks, but it was fascinating.

I visited offices, ate lunch with Chiefs of Staff, and drafted legislation. I felt, like a wrestler feeling age (horror, anguish, but no intellectual surprise), the oppressive power of the staffers that surround Members of Congress. I talked with more than one young, smart, confident Chief of Staff who breezily told me that the prior campaign commitments made by his boss would not work in the real world of Washington, intimating strongly that the Member was a naïf, and that he, or she, was the real puppeteer.

Alexa continues:

We want to thank you for your support and express how appreciative you are that you want to be part of Barack Obama's candidacy.

When Hillary says that "lobbyists are Americans, too," she might hope that you think of people like me. People who get paid under $100,000/year for some good government group, who are driven by an idea of a better America and hope to represent the unrepresented, who spend most of their time on other work. But the group coded as "ideological/single issue" by Open Secrets are a fraction of the total number, and are necessary only because of the other lobbying groups. The biggest ideological spenders, like Sierra Club ($140,000 last year on lobbying), is vastly outspent by logging and mining and oil interests.

But the objection to lobbying goes deeper than that; were I still with Sunlight, a group whose mission I absolutely endorse, and were I still donating to political campaigns, those donations would, inevitably, carry a political tint. I would necessarily wonder if I might be more likely to get a staff meeting if I donated--or perhaps where I couldn't get a staff meeting--I would necessarily consider how and when to donate in terms of my professional life. A donation to a Presidential campaign might well reflect only my political beliefs, but it would at least have passed through the seive of my professional life in my mind.

So if I can't give pending my petition to remove my name from the lobbying database, I'm happy to lead the "Lobbyists against Lobbyists giving money to Presidential campaigns" group.

The letter made me all the more willing to spend a few afternoons walking Virginia back roads for Obama. Imagine Chappell and her colleagues, digging through a million forms to find the lobbying registration of Zephyr Teachout, Sunlight Network, lobbyist for "greater transparency for Government Activities." (Forgive the capital letters; high school german class keeps showing up in strange places, like capitalized nouns, especially Nouns of Importance).

Think of the checking and cross-checking of checks and names, (especially names that are harder to isolate than mine!).

Sweeping change never comes from one person or program, but always from the will and passion of countless voices working, fighting, and marching towards that better place.

How can I not want to make more phone calls, knowing that Alexa is deep in the basement, trying to clean out the influence of money one check at a time?

And I get my $100 back.