Real Change: Major Donors Get Major Lobbying Time at Obama White House

Kate Hicks

4/15/2012 9:25:00 AM - Kate Hicks

Remember when Barack Obama promised to change the way Washington does business? No more special interests -- he was going to the White House to fix the country for the American people!

Well, it's abundantly clear that he lied.

White House visitor logs reveal that time with the president or influential members of his staff comes at a price -- a minimum of $30,000. The majority of visitors also happen to be, coincidentally, major donors with an agenda, whose checks get them some time with the president's ear.

Although Mr. Obama has made a point of not accepting contributions from registered lobbyists, a review of campaign donations and White House visitor logs shows that special interests have had little trouble making themselves heard. Many of the president’s biggest donors, while not lobbyists, took lobbyists with them to the White House, while others performed essentially the same function on their visits.

More broadly, the review showed that those who donated the most to Mr. Obama and the Democratic Party since he started running for president were far more likely to visit the White House than others. Among donors who gave $30,000 or less, about 20 percentvisited the White House, according to a New York Times analysis that matched names in the visitor logs with donor records. But among those who donated $100,000 or more, the figure rises to about 75 percent. Approximately two-thirds of the president’s top fund-raisers in the 2008 campaign visited the White House at least once, some of them numerous times.

The timing of the donations is often fishy, too. Many gave money just before or after their time at the White House, raising suspicions that perhaps, they expected to have some time to lobby for a cause, and were therefore paying the White House back.

Interestingly, a prominent Democrat -- Ted Kennedy's son, Patrick -- openly admits that this is how this White House works. You scratch my back, I'll scratch yours. Everybody wins.

Patrick J. Kennedy, the former representative from Rhode Island, who donated $35,800 to an Obama re-election fund last fall while seeking administration support for a nonprofit venture, said contributions were simply a part of “how this business works.”

“If you want to call it ‘quid pro quo,’ fine,” he said. “At the end of the day, I want to make sure I do my part.”

Mr. Kennedy visited the White House several times to win support for One Mind for Research, his initiative to help develop new treatments for brain disorders. While his family name and connections are clearly influential, he said, he knows White House officials are busy. And as a former chairman of the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee, he said he was keenly aware of the political realities they face.

“I know that they look at the reports,” he said, referring to records of campaign donations. “They’re my friends anyway, but it won’t hurt when I ask them for a favor if they don’t see me as a slouch.”

It's the latest evidence that this president never intended to disrupt "business as usual," but instead enthusiastically takes money from those who want something from him. Backroom deals and lobbyists are still very much a part of the White House culture, despite the lofty promises candidate Obama made back in 2008. After all, they may not take money from lobbyists, but lobbyists are all over the visitor records, as guests of donors. Someone else may pay for them to get in the door, but that certainly doesn't stop them from talking. Real change, folks.