White House visitor logs, dumped at 4:30 last Friday — a time when they'd get little notice over the Halloween weekend — provide striking insights into how President Obama, despite his anti-lobbyist rhetoric, works closely with the K Street players who represent the industry giants that he's subsidizing and regulating.
Lobbyist Tony Podesta and his lobbyist wife, Heather Podesta, separately visited the White House eight times in Obama's first six months, according to the White House data dump. On 17 occasions, Obama's White House welcomed Tony's brother John, who co-founded the Podesta Group lobbying firm with Tony.
The Podestas are precisely the sort of wealthy, well-connected, revolving door, corporate lobbyists whom candidate Obama assailed for having “turned government into a game only they can play.”
Tony visited the White House five times in three months this year, meeting with Obama's economic adviser Jason Furman among others. We don't know what they discussed. We do know, however, that Tony's clients include biotech companies and drug makers such as Novartis, Amgen, and Genzyme, as well as defense contractors like Lockheed Martin, SAP, General Dynamics, and United Technologies.
Heather made three visits between June and July. Her clients include health-sector giants such as Eli Lilly, HealthSouth, and Cigna.
These Podesta clients, especially the pharmaceutical and biotech companies, figure to win big from Obama's policies, such as expanded taxpayer funding of research on human embryos. Obama's health care reform would also profit the drug companies. And although Obama has thrown some barbs at the health insurers, he is now pushing a federal law requiring everyone to buy health insurance.
Tony's brother John is one of Obama's closest advisers, having served as director of Obama's transition team. John runs the Center for American Progress, an advocacy group intimately tied to the White House. Obama could defend these 17 John Podesta visits by pointing out he is no longer a registered lobbyist, but CAP's work with corporations has dovetailed with his brother's lobbying.
For instance, Tony lobbies Congress on Wal-Mart's behalf in support of a federal mandate that would require employers to offer health insurance — a requirement that could crush smaller retailers. Wal-Mart's first public support for the employer mandate came in a joint letter with CAP. CAP keeps its corporate donors secret, but Wal-Mart disclosed that it paid CAP at least $500,000 recently — even more than the $400,000 a year it pays Tony's firm.
The Podestas also represent the most Obama-friendly corporations. NBC Universal, which includes the pro-Obama MSNBC, is a Podesta Group client. NBC is owned by General Electric, whose Chief Executive Officer Jeff Immelt sits on Obama's Economic Recovery Advisory Board and enjoys a weekly call with White House official Austan Goolsbee.
Google CEO Eric Schmidt campaigned for Obama and raised money for him, and now the company stands to profit from Obama's proposed net-neutrality regulations. The Podesta Group represents Google on net neutrality.
Obama's policies — on health, tech, climate and more — often spell profits for certain big companies. The Podestas are the line that connects these dots. For instance, Kathleen Sebelius, Obama's health and human services secretary — the Cabinet official most closely tied to health care reform — attended Tony Podesta's 65th birthday last month, hosted by Heather Podesta.
During the campaign, Obama pledged to stop the revolving door between K Street and official Washington. His closeness with the Podestas makes a mockery of that pledge. Tony Podesta came to K Street from Sen. Ted Kennedy's office. Heather was a Democratic Hill staffer. John Podesta was Bill Clinton's chief of staff, then a corporate lobbyist, and then Obama's transition director.
The Podesta Group also appears to have won the race to hire away Obama administration officials. Oscar Ramirez, an Obama campaign worker, served as a special assistant in Obama's Labor Department from January through June before cashing out and joining Tony's lobbying army — apparently the first White House-to-K Street move in the Obama era.
The Podestas are generous Democratic donors, having given more than $300,000 to Democrats over the last two cycles. In March, when Obama held his first big fundraiser in Washington as president, he hosted it at the National Museum of Women in the Arts, of which Heather was a director as recently as 2008.
The White House touted its Friday afternoon visitor log dump as “transparency like you've never seen before.” What the data have revealed is that influence peddling and the revolving door work the same as ever.
Timothy P. Carney, The Examiner's lobbying editor, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He writes an op-ed column that appears on Friday.