The Lobbying Underground.

Are lobbyists really fleeing Obama’s Washington? Yesterday, the Center for Responsive Politics and OMB Watch jointly released a study revealing that some 1,400 lobbyists de-registered between April and June this year -- about 8 percent of the total number of registered lobbyists. Normally, only a few hundred lobbyists leave every quarter, but the exodus happened soon after Obama issued an executive order that imposed new rules on lobbying, restricting lobbyists' ability to serve in the administration and to have direct access to officials handling TARP and the stimulus package. The departures of registered lobbyists now outpace the number of new registrations each year, and the trend is only accelerating.

Some have interpreted the news as a sign that the Obama administration has effectively fulfilled its pledge to crack down on lobbying. “It’s been a rough few years for lobbyists,” Brody Mullins proclaimed in The Wall Street Journal, adding that K Street has also borne the brunt of the recession."They have been attacked by President Barack Obama ... and they have been hurt by the economy. And many have decided they’re not going to take it anymore.” And some liberal outlets immediately cheered the news: As Mother Jones tweeted, “Good riddance, lobbyists.”

But have all these lobbyists really fled the profession -- or have some returned under different guises? As OMB Watch and CRP note, many lobbyists who appear to have left have come back as unregistered lobbyists with executive titles like “senior adviser” or “consultant” to avoid having to comply with federal lobbying restrictions. One lobbyist I contacted confirmed this trend in an e-mail today:

For people wanting to reenter government, or who interact with "covered officials" not having to register as a lobbyist makes a job more attractive. At our firm we have brought attorneys who are not registered and used them to meet with officials who refuse to see lobbyists… I don't think many people have left the profession, in fact I'd bet the business of influencing government has actually grown over
the last year – registrations not withstanding.

If the Obama administration really wanted to crack down on the influence of lobbying, it could force anyone who met with officials “covered” under the current lobbying restrictions to register -- and cut down on the legislative earmarks that still abound. Moreover, OMB Watch’s Lee Mason told me, the White House (as well as Congress) could decide to disclose the meetings and communications it has with all the lobbyists and advocates it courts.

Without taking these kind of measures, the system “basically disadvantages the people who play by the rules while creating a whole new underground influence game that flouts a law that can't be enforced,” the lobbyist source concluded. As it currently stands -- and as the debates over health care and financial regulation have made abundantly clear -- Obama’s anti-lobbying efforts haven’t certainly diminished the clout of K Street.

--Suzy Khimm