To salvage Obamacare, White House hires lobbyist for drugmakers, hospitals

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Article Highlights

  • Helping companies lobby counts as "lobbying activity" under the law, but a firm/individual doesn't have to register as a lobbyist if it refrains from making "lobbying contacts."

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  • "They won't work in my administration," candidate Obama said of lobbyists.

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  • Jennings, a revolving-door millionaire lobbyist, clearly isn't the enemy of the White House.

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President Obama has hired a lobbyist for drugmakers and hospitals to try and right the chaotic implementation of Obamacare. This further exposes the fraud of the president's anti-lobbyist rhetoric.

Chris Jennings will join the White House as a "health policy coordinator and strategist," the New York Times reported this week. Jennings is a former lobbyist who is still a consultant for health industry clients and has continued meeting with White House health-care staff through the end of 2012.

Here's his revolving-door story:

Jennings became the top health policy aide in the Clinton White House in 1995, after Hillary Clinton's health-care plan crumbled. Jennings served until Bill Clinton left office, and then he did what you would expect: He set up his own lobbying firm, Jennings Policy Strategies.
In June 2001, Jennings registered his first lobbying clients: the Generic Pharmaceutical Association and Families USA, a non-profit advocacy group that had supported HillaryCare. Soon, Jennings picked up name-brand drugmaker Actelion as a client.

General Motors hired Jennings in 2002, according to his firm's lobbying filings, to push for a Medicare prescription drug benefit. GM retained Jennings as its health-care lobbyist through the beginning of 2009 paying his firm more than $1 million over those years.

Others Jennings clients include the Service Employees International Union, medical equipment makers Siemens and Lincare, NYU Downtown Hospital, and the California Public Employees Retirement System.

Jennings' firm brought in about $9 million in lobbying fees between 2001 and 2010, according to federal filings. Then, after Obamacare passed in the spring of 2010, Jennings and his firm deregistered as lobbyists, terminating all their accounts by April 1, 2010.

This week, the White House told reporters Jennings was coming on board to help implement Obamacare. "He will be an invaluable addition," said White House Chief of Staff Denis McDonough, himself a former registered lobbyist.

The Times reported that Jennings' deregistering was important: "Mr. Jennings was a registered lobbyist, but has not been one for a couple of years, so he would not have to worry about Obama administration restrictions on lobbyists joining the government."

Jennings Policy Strategies, however, lives on. Under Chris Jennings' leadership, the firm helps clients "develop and implement policy ... strategies," and be "constructively influential in the multifaceted and ongoing health reform debate ..."

Helping companies lobby counts as "lobbying activity" under the law, but a firm or an individual doesn't have to register as a lobbyist if it refrains from making "lobbying contacts." That is, Jennings and his colleagues are legally non-lobbyists as long as they don't call on Congress or the administration on behalf of their clients.

But Jennings hasn't stopped visiting the White House since deregistering as a lobbyist.

White House visitor logs show "Christopher C Jennings" or "Chris C Jennings" visiting the White House 30 times since 2009 — with almost all of those since he deregistered. Not counting large receptions or White House tours, Jennings visited five times as a lobbyist, and 22 times since deregistering. Most of those 22 meetings were with White House health-care staff such as Nancy Ann DeParle, Jeanne Lambrew, and Keith Fontenot.

Jennings, his firm, the White House, and DeParle did not return phone calls and voice messages seeking comment.

These visits would trigger the Lobbying Disclosure Act, and force Jennings to register, unless one of two conditions were met. The first condition — which seems implausible — is that he spends less than 20 percent of his time on "lobbying activity," which includes planning legislative strategy with clients.

The only plausible excuse for Jennings not registering as a lobbyist: He was discussing health-care reform with the White House, but not on behalf of the clients who were paying him to help them advance their favored health-care policies.

The thing is, with Jennings, this defense is not as far-fetched as it sounds. As a Republican health-care lobbyist I spoke with said, "Jennings believes the stuff he's lobbying for." Jennings website says he seeks only clients that want to broaden access and reduce costs in health care. For instance, nearly a third of Jennings' lobbying revenue came from generic drugmakers, who sell their drugs for a tiny fraction of what name-brand drugmakers charge.

But still, this clashes with Obama's rhetoric. "They won't work in my administration," candidate Obama said of lobbyists. Yet Jennings, a revolving-door millionaire lobbyist, clearly isn't the enemy of the White House. Maybe Obama never really believed his simplistic morality tale about lobbyists.

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