Campaign staffers and political ties

Jeff Birnbaum

TEXT OF COMMENTARY

Kai Ryssdal: For those of you who will find yourselves at one of those big parties in Denver or St. Paul, there's a decent chance the guy elbowing you out of the way to get the last Swedish meatball is gonna be a lobbyist. Republican John McCain's taken some heat this summer for having lobbyists in his inner circle. Barack Obama's tried to make political hay by pointedly not taking money from them. But commentator Jeff Birnbaum says the issue's not as cut and dried as it seems.


When John McCain needed advice about how to deal with the Republic of Georgia, he turned, naturally, to his chief foreign policy adviser, Randy Scheunemann. Scheunemann knows the subject well. He was a paid lobbyist for Georgia for years. In fact, in April, his lobbying firm signed a new $200,000 contract with the government on the same day he helped prepare McCain for a phone call with Georgia's president.

McCain's presidential campaign insists the timing was coincidence, while Barack Obama's aides, of course, cried foul. There's certainly a reason to question who Scheunemann was working for -- McCain, Georgia or both?

But the broader issue is one that's rarely broached: Does the mere fact that someone has worked for a particular interest -- in this case a foreign interest-- disqualify that person from advising a politician, or even a president, about that very same group?

The answer, especially in these highly commercial days in Washington, is absolutely not. There's hardly a policy expert alive who doesn't get wrapped up with an interest that he would have to deal with if he ever got the chance to serve in government.

That's been true for years. Before Sandy Berger joined the Clinton administration as a top national security adviser, he was a Washington lawyer whose clients included Japan, Poland and foreign steel producers. Condoleezza Rice was on the board of Exxon* before she joined the Bush administration. Scheunemann, clearly, is in very good company.

Now, disclosure about such ties is necessary. The public needs to know about potential conflicts of interest. But that kind of information shouldn't be automatically disqualifying. In fact, competent policy experts are always in high demand. They inevitably have clients or benefactors who are eager to pay them well to get the best advice.

That's also what a president needs, and we should all be open to allowing them to have it.

Ryssdal: Jeff Birnbaum is a columnist for the Washington Post.

*Editor's note: Condoleeza Rice was on the board of Chevron, not Exxon, before working for President Bush

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