What if 'Lobbyist for Foreign Dictator' Wasn’t a Job It Was OK to Have?


You may have heard that Paul Manafort was indicted today, for being a bad man in the Russia way.

In the wake of Manafort’s indictment, prominent lobbyist Tony Podesta resigned from the Podesta Group, a firm that also worked for the same shady Ukranian politician that got Manafort in hot water. Podesta is the brother of Clinton campaign chair John Podesta; his ex-wife Heather runs another firm, Podesta & Partners. The Daily Beast reported that sources familiar with the probe said that “Manafort and Tony [Podesta] were inseparable and driving the same train.” The train to PRISON!!! LOL.

It is not out of character for The Podesta Group to be engaged by a Bad foreign government. The firm has represented many U.S.-friendly, fuzzy governments, including those of Saudi Arabia and Azerbaijan. Filings with the Department of Justice reveal hundreds of contacts between The Podesta Group with members of Congress and the media for “Saudi public relations” and “US-Azerbaijan relations.”

And I think that’s weird, honestly. I think it’s weird to wake up every day and go and email members of the press to tell them that Actually, the government of Saudi Arabia is Good, even if it is for a lot of money. My question is: what if… people in Washington didn’t do this? Like, for their jobs. What if they got other jobs instead?

I don’t mean “what if the government banned lobbyists in the U.S. from representing foreign governments,” though really I don’t see why that shouldn’t be the case. That’s what diplomats are for, right? Why is it valuable to American democracy to allow foreign governments—particularly those that, you know, aren’t elected—to buy representatives in Washington? (It would actually be great if lobbying as an industry went away entirely; it’s deeply fucked that you can buy the attention of our government in proportion to the amount of cash you have.)

But let’s accept for a second that lobbying is here to stay, as an industry and a practice. What if we made it socially unacceptable to represent dictators for money? What if people in DC, when meeting a person at a party who says they work for The Podesta Group, or represents Saudi Arabia for money, smiled politely and walked away instead of pretending that’s normal and asking whether they’d been to Nobu yet? What sickness sits upon a city or a nation when everyone is supposed to pretend that this is an OK thing to do because, what, everyone needs a job, I guess?

One great way to do this would be to make the reporting system much, much better. Currently, information about lobbying for foreign agents is available only in unreadable PDFs; you can search through the Foreign Agents Registration Act database or through OpenSecrets, but very few people are doing that. Most reporters, even, aren’t doing that, because it mostly isn’t news that lobbying firms represent dictators. But if the reporting system were easier to search, along the lines of the FEC’s new campaign finance searching system, that would go at least some way to exposing who’s doing the dirty work of representing foreign dictators for money. Put the names up of people who do this in bold on a website. Post their press releases and the ad campaigns they help run on a website, maybe something like LobbyistsForBaddies.com. List how much they make doing it.

We already name these people, if not in a particularly accessible form. Isn’t it time for them to feel some shame?

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