There may be a new sheriff in Washington, but Political Insiders generally believe that when it comes to wielding influence, some of the old rules still apply.
According to a survey of more than 160 of National Journal's Political Insiders, half from each party, Democratic and Republican Insiders agreed that President Obama's new ethics rules are not going to curb the clout of special interests in the nation's capital. More than two-thirds of the Democratic Insiders said that the Obama guidelines would not "reduce the influence of special interests in Washington," and an astonishing 100 percent of Republican Insiders concurred.
At the same time, when the Insiders were asked whether members of Congress should be prohibited from receiving campaign contributions or fundraising assistance from lobbyists, solid majorities in both parties said no.
The verdict on Obama's new ethics rules was mixed: A sizable plurality of Democratic Insiders -- 48 percent -- said that the rules were "about right," while an identical percentage of Republican -Insiders said that they were "too restrictive."
But when the responses to this question were limited to Insiders who are part of the influence industry, there was greater agreement: 58 percent of the Democratic Insiders who are registered lobbyists at the federal or state level said that Obama's rules were too restrictive, as did 61 percent of the -Republican Insiders who are lobbyists.
That's not to say that the traditional order of the influence industry is likely to remain the same. On the question of who would emerge as the big winner among a dozen top interest groups during President Obama's first term in office, 78 percent of the Democratic Insiders picked the wind and solar power associations, representing alternative-energy industries. The runner-up among Democrats was the Environmental Defense Fund of the green lobby, selected by 45 percent, with the AFL-CIO, standing for organized labor, coming in third at 43 percent. (The Insiders were asked to choose three groups from a list of 12 and could volunteer others.)
Conversely, an even larger share of Republican Insiders -- 84 percent -- said that the AFL-CIO (labor) was likely to get the biggest boost under Obama. The runner-up was a tie between the wind and solar power associations and the American Association for Justice, representing trial lawyers; each was picked by 40 percent of the Republicans.
On the question of which groups would be among the losers over the next four years, the Insiders showed remarkable bipartisan agreement. Democrats and Republicans alike saw the American Petroleum Institute, representing the oil and natural-gas industries, as the biggest loser, followed by the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the lobby for -major drugmakers.
Democrats were closely divided on the second runner-up, with 40 percent citing the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, representing Wall Street, and 39 percent picking America's Health Insurance Plans, representing health insurers and HMOs. Likewise, 39 percent of the Republican -Insiders said that AHIP was likely to be a loser.
There is some overlap among Democratic and Republican Insiders on the question of who stands to benefit the most over the next four years, but the differences at the top of their respective lists reflect longtime partisan battles. Organized labor and trial lawyers have contributed heavily to Democratic campaign coffers, so Republicans expect that payback time has come now that Democrats control both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue. As one Republican Insider put it, "They elected Obama, and the bill is now past due." Another GOP Insider said, "The Democrats owe the unions, and the unions will demand [that] their agenda gets passed."
(The union vote among Democratic Insiders is actually higher, because 6 percent of these respondents volunteered that the Service Employees International Union, which split from the AFL-CIO in 2005, would be a winner under Obama. As one Democratic Insider noted, "They got in early" for Obama.)
At the same time, some Democratic Insiders wonder if past -allies such as Big Labor will get a blank check from Obama -given the fiscal challenges he faces and the need to solve the financial crisis. "The more traditional beneficiaries [of Democratic policies] are a mixed bag given the budget and economy," one Democratic Insider said in assessing the winners under Obama. Added another: "We will soon see if Obama has the capacity to say no if he wants to get the deficit under control."
Obama, of course, expanded the Democratic coalition in the last election, attracting more younger voters, independents, and upscale suburbanites. But those groups don't always share the same priorities as some of the party's traditional supporters.
EDITOR'S NOTE: Washington has a huge number of powerful organizations and interest groups in various corporate, professional, and nonprofit sectors. In selecting those we asked our Insiders about (pp. 46 and 47), we considered several factors: size of the group; lobbying spending; campaign contributions; and prominence. Our selections were not meant to confer a special status on these groups over other influential and effective organizations in a particular sector.
This article appears in the March 21, 2009 edition of National Journal Magazine Contents.