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Lobbyists: Obama White House Hides Meetings Off-Site

by Chris Frates

Caught between their boss’s anti-lobbyist rhetoric and the reality of governing, President Barack Obama’s aides often steer meetings with lobbyists to a complex just off the White House grounds – and several of the lobbyists involved say they believe the choice of venue is no accident.

It allows the Obama administration to keep these lobbyist meetings shielded from public view — and out of Secret Service logs collected on visitors to the White House and later released to the public.

“They’re doing it on the side. It’s better than nothing,” said immigration reform lobbyist Tamar Jacoby, who has attended meetings at the nearby Jackson Place complex and believes the undisclosed gatherings are better than none.

The White House scoffs at the notion of an ulterior motive for scheduling meetings in what are, after all, meeting rooms. But at least four lobbyists who’ve been to the conference rooms just off Lafayette Square tell POLITICO they had the distinct impression they were being shunted off to Jackson Place – and off the books – so their visits wouldn’t later be made public.

Obama’s administration has touted its release of White House visitors logs as a breakthrough in transparency, as the first White House team ever to reveal the comings and goings around the West Wing and the Old Executive Office Building.

The Jackson Place townhouses are a different story.

There are no records of meetings at the row houses just off Lafayette Square that house the White House Conference Center and the Council on Environmental Quality, home to two of the busiest meeting spaces. The White House can’t say who attended meetings there, or how often. The Secret Service doesn’t log in visitors or require a background check the way it does at the main gates of the White House.

The White House says the additional meeting space is used when the White House is filled or when there’s no time to clear participants through the security screening. And to be sure, a few lobbyists contacted by POLITICO said they didn’t see any hidden motive for the White House staff’s decision to hold a meeting there.

“The White House conference facilities are just that: facilities for large meetings. They are also an option when rooms inside the complex don’t have the capacity for a given meeting or are booked,” said White House spokesman Reid Cherlin.

But that’s not how it feels to some of the lobbyists who’ve been there.

They say the White House is generally happy to meet with them and their clients once or twice, but get leery when an issue requires multiple visits and begin pushing for phone calls or meetings outside the White House’s gates.

“Without question, I think that there’s a lot of concern about being seen meeting with the same lobbyists or particular lobbyists over and over again,” said one business lobbyist, who has been to Jackson Place meetings.

It’s not only Jackson Place. Another favorite off-campus meeting spot is a nearby Caribou Coffee, which, according to the New York Times, has hosted hundreds of meetings among lobbyists and White House staffers since Obama took office.

And administration officials recently asked some lobbyists and others who met with them to sign confidentiality agreements barring them from disclosing what was discussed at meetings with administration officials, in that case a rental policy working group.

The administration has defended the practice as a way to “maintain the integrity of our decision-making process.” But it has come under fire from lobbyists and a top House Republican, who have criticized the demand that participants sign a “gag order” before being allowed into meetings. The White House has not responded to repeated requests for comment on its nondisclosure agreement policy.

The process of disclosing the meetings can cut both ways.

During the health care reform debate, Democratic House and Senate leadership pushed for high-level negotiations to be held in the White House – specifically to create a record when the visitor logs were released, so administration officials couldn’t later distance themselves if the talks had failed, said a source familiar with the situation.

And in fact, a number of lobbyist contacts have been recorded in the visitors logs released by the White House.

Cherlin said the administration never claimed the visitor logs capture every meeting held with White House officials.

“Our driving principal here is that lobbyists should have the same access to the White House as non-lobbyists. We deal with important policy issues and we want to get those policy issues right,” Cherlin said. “We’ve taken unprecedented steps to limit the influence of lobbyists inside the White House; we’ve closed the revolving door. But we just felt that access should be equal, which you know in the past it has not been. Lobbyists have had more.”

But lobbyists are particularly stung by what they see as a double-standard, with Obama bashing their profession as part of what’s wrong with Washington while his staff routinely sits down with lobbyists to discuss key issues.

“When they need us, they call us. When they don’t, we’re evil,” said another lobbyist who has been to Jackson Place meetings.

Indeed, during the State of the Union address Obama derided the “parade of lobbyists [that] has rigged the tax code to benefit particular companies and industries.” And, because the public deserves to know when its elected officials are talking to lobbyists, he called on “Congress to do what the White House has already done — put that information online.”

Randy Johnson, a U.S. Chamber of Commerce executive who has been to White House and Jackson Place meetings, said the gatherings aren’t closely guarded secrets and insiders generally know who administration staffers are talking to. But, he said, there’s no way to know for certain without a record of all the meetings at Jackson Place.

“You can’t make the claim you’re holier than thou because, sometimes, a car looks shiny but when you look below the hood, things may look a lot different,” he said. “You can’t measure the claim of transparency unless you have those numbers.”

Some lobbyists gripe about the hypocrisy of publicly bashing lobbyists while privately holding off-the-books meetings with them, but Jacoby, president of ImmigrationWorks USA, an organization representing small businesses, supports the outreach, no matter the form.

“The most important thing, for all the prohibitions, is that they’re realizing that you can’t govern in America without a.), getting the input of experts and b.), getting in touch with the business community. No matter how they do that, whether it’s on the up-and-up or off-the-charts, so to speak, the important thing is that they know that they have to do it,” she said.

The administration really “boxed themselves in” with their anti-lobbyist policies, she said. But rather than emphasizing hypocrisy and playing gotcha, it’s important to recognize that “they’re on a better track and they see that they need to get out of the box,” said Jacoby, who has been to Jackson Place meetings.

Of course, meeting outside the limelight and limiting written correspondence is not unique to the Obama administration. For years, countless government staffers have been admonished not to write down something they wouldn’t want to read on the front page of The Washington Post. But the Obama administration, some lobbyists say, has taken that approach to new levels.

“I’ve not seen the Washington Post test enforced so ritualistically as this White House,” said one lobbyist, who regularly does business with the administration.

The veteran lobbyist said no other administration he’s worked with has so often responded to routine email queries with the same three-word response, “Gimme a ring.”

White House officials are traditionally wary of disclosing their meetings. Vice President Dick Cheney, for instance, refused to name the energy company officials and lobbyists he met with while heading a task force that made pro-industry recommendations — a decision a federal appeals court ultimately upheld.

But unlike Obama, Bush and previous presidents didn’t pledge to make their administrations “the most open and transparent in history” – a fact not lost on Washington’s lobbying class.

During last year’s push to move comprehensive immigration reform (CIR) legislation on Capitol Hill, the White House invited business lobbyists and executives from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the National Association of Manufacturers, the National Association of Home Builders, the National Restaurant Association and others to a Jackson Place meeting with senior policy staffers.

“We would like to convene a small meeting with White House staff on Friday at 12 noon (736 Jackson Place — see attached map), to discuss the current progress of CIR legislation,” a White House invitation obtained by POLITICO said.

The email was sent on a Wednesday, two days before the meeting, which left time for background checks had staffers wanted to hold the meeting at the White House. Some lobbyists suspected they were being kept outside the gates for political, rather than logistical, reasons.

“My understanding was they were holding the meeting there because it included several high-level business and trade association lobbyists,” said a senior business lobbyist who attended the meeting. “This was an effort to not have to go through the security protocols at the White House which could lead to the visitor logs at some point being released to the public and embarrass the president.”

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