Obama's SOTU talk on special interests -- and his record 

At the bottom of this post, I've pasted a State of the Union excerpt released by the White House, regarding lobbyists, special interests, and government ethics. Here, let me fact-check some of his claims, many of which could easily spur a Joe Wilson-type outburst from people more familiar with the facts:

"To close that credibility gap we must take action on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to end the outsized influence of lobbyists; to do our work openly"

Obama's call to "do our work openly" would represent a change of procedure in many ways. We didn't know about a July deal on health-care reform between White House chief of staff Rahm Emanuel and top drug lobbyist Billy Tauzin until the LA Times reported on it, thanks to Tauzin's talking outside of school.

Also, "work[ing] openly" wouldn't be how I would describe Obama's claim that "today, despite decades of lobbying and advertising by the tobacco industry, we passed a law" that had the full support of Philip Morris--by far the number one tobacco lobbying power and number one tobacco company.

And "end[ing] the outsized influence of lobbyists," didn't appear to happen in Obama Year One, as Roll Call reported a boom for most of the elite K Street firms.

"we’ve excluded lobbyists from policy-making jobs"

This claim falls somewhere between extremely imprecise and downright false, presuming he's talking about former lobbyists. To begin with, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was a lobbyist for the National Education Association in March of 2008.

Sure, education and agriculture are two different issue areas, but what about Monsanto's former top lobbyist Michael Taylor, whom Obama put in charge of food safety policy? And then there's top agri-chemical lobbyist Isi Siddiqui, whom Obama tapped as a trade representative on agriculture. Their defenses are that they were lobbyists outside Obama's two-year window.

But then there's William J. Lynn, who was a lobbyist for leading defense contractor Raytheon when Obama tapped him as Secretary of Defense. Not much getting around that one, so Obama issued a waiver.

But, last I checked, we didn't even have a waiver for Treasury Department Chief of Staff Mark Patterson, who was a Goldman Sachs lobbyist as late as April 2008. Does Patterson recuse himself from all policymaking on taxes, financial policy, Goldman Sachs, AIG, and monetary policy?

There are at least a dozen other former lobbyists in the Obama administration.

It's "time to put strict limits on the contributions that lobbyists give to candidates for federal office."

Obama has credibility here, as he steadfastly tried to avoid taking lobbyist money in 2008. But it's worth pointing out that, according to data at OpenSecrets.org, Democrats have outraised Republicans from the lobbying industry by $5.6 million to $3 million this cycle, the top two recipients of lobbyist cash are Harry Reid (D-Nev.) and Chuck Schumer (D-N.Y.), and 8 of the top 10 recipients are Democrats.

"I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests"

This is an interesting comment from the man who raised more money than any politician ever from the drug industry, the health insurance industry, and from Wall Street.

Check out the image below, from OpenSecrets, of the top 20 industries contributing to the 2008 election, and chew on Obama's comments. Below the image is the speech excerpt:

 

Excerpt

Rather than fight the same tired battles that have dominated Washington for decades, it’s time for something new.  Let’s try common sense.  Let’s invest in our people without leaving them a mountain of debt. Let’s meet our responsibility to the people who sent us here. 
 
To do that, we have to recognize that we face more than a deficit of dollars right now. We face a deficit of trust – deep and corrosive doubts about how Washington works that have been growing for years. To close that credibility gap we must take action on both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue to end the outsized influence of lobbyists; to do our work openly; and to give our people the government they deserve. 
 
That’s what I came to Washington to do. That’s why – for the first time in history – my Administration posts our White House visitors online. And that’s why we’ve excluded lobbyists from policy-making jobs or seats on federal boards and commissions. 
 
But we cannot stop there. It’s time to require lobbyists to disclose each contact they make on behalf of a client with my Administration or Congress.  And it’s time to put strict limits on the contributions that lobbyists give to candidates for federal office. Last week, the Supreme Court reversed a century of law to open the floodgates for special interests – including foreign companies – to spend without limit in our elections. Well I don’t think American elections should be bankrolled by America’s most powerful interests, and worse, by foreign entities.  They should be decided by the American people, and that’s why I’m urging Democrats and Republicans to pass a bill that helps to right this wrong. 

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Timothy P. Carney

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