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Romney moves closer to K Street, at his peril

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Mitt Romney's newest policy adviser is former Minnesota Rep. Vin Weber, a powerful K Street lobbyist with clients like Alcoa, eBay, and the Council on Pakistan Relations. Top-tier presidential candidates regularly turn to K Street for advisers, whose duties range from intimate guidance on policies to fundraising to simply lending one's name.

But Romney is already the GOP candidate most friendly with K Street. What does his alliance with lobbyist Weber tell us?

Weber was a six-term GOP congressman, an appropriator and member of leadership. He cashed out in 1993, going to work as a consultant and lobbyist. Today, he is a managing partner at the K Street powerhouse Clark & Weinstock, and regular unpaid adviser to GOP presidential candidates.

In 2008, Weber backed Romney. At the beginning of this cycle, he teamed up with his fellow Minnesotan Tim Pawlenty. After Pawlenty dropped out, Weber volunteered for Romney again as a "special adviser on policy."

There's nothing unusual about active lobbyists serving on campaigns. Even while Barack Obama pretended to run against lobbyists, he kept a handful of advisers from K Street, with clients like AT&T, the American Petroleum Institute, and Freddie Mac. But just because it's standard Beltway procedure doesn't mean it's OK. Can someone being paid to advance AT&T's or Goldman Sachs's interests before lawmakers also give reliable counsel to a powerful politician?

Liberals worry more than conservatives about this sort of thing. The Nation magazine raised a stink four years ago about corporate consultant Mark Penn advising Hillary Clinton, arguing that these sort of "corporate ties ... cast doubt on her ability and willingness to fight for the progressive policies she claims to champion."

But conservatives ought to have the same sort of worries. Weber, for instance, lobbies on Alcoa's behalf on "energy ... and environmental issues," according to federal lobbying filings. Alcoa has actively supported a cap-and-trade scheme curbing greenhouse gas emissions and has lobbied in favor of stricter fuel-economy standards for cars. Both of these policies help the aluminum giant by creating a new incentive to use more aluminum in automobiles and less steel. But both policies also undermine the free market Romney says he stands for.

Other Weber clients include student lender Sallie Mae, which profited off the raft of subsidies Washington gave as student loans (until the 2009 health-care bill effectively nationalized the industry), and FedBid, whose only customers are government agencies. Romney talks about cutting spending, but Weber has big clients that rely on government spending. It's a clear conflict of interest.

Weber, though, thinks lobbyist-advisers "bend over backward to separate" their different roles, and not wear their lobbyist hats into campaign meetings. "If I were to go in there," Weber told me, "and try to push a client's agenda, that would be over the line." But he doesn't do that, he says, and he doesn't think other lobbyists do.

"It's a question of integrity," Weber says, and a candidate would pick up on it pretty quickly, he argues, if an adviser's advice seemed compromised. For his part, Weber says he'll be helping Romney with "macroeconomic policy and foreign policy," and he'll recuse himself if he's conflicted.

We should give Weber and other revolving-door lobbyist-advisers the benefit of the doubt, but conservatives should be concerned anyway. Even if a former staffer or member is ideologically conservative, as a lobbyist, his policy preferences are overwhelmed by the incentive to get someone of his own party elected. A Republican lobbyist is worth much more when Republicans -- any Republicans -- control government, and vice-versa for Democrats.

Also, running in establishment K Street circles gives an operative a different set of priorities (and even principles) than the grass roots hold. Beltway Republicans overwhelmingly favored the 2008 Wall Street bailout, while the base overwhelmingly opposed it. Romney is already too cozy with Wall Street and K Street for some Tea Partiers' tastes. Can adding Weber steer him astray, politically?

"We have an administration now that has spent two and a half years unrelentingly bashing business," Weber told me. "The least of our problems going forward would be a president who is too friendly to business."

That may be self-evident on K Street, but after the Wall Street bailout, a drug-industry-backed Obamacare, and the insurance-industry-backed Romneycare -- and amid a debt crisis driven in part by business-backed stimulus spending -- the conservative base might disagree.

Timothy P.Carney, The Examiner's senior political columnist, can be contacted at tcarney@washingtonexaminer.com. His column appears Monday and Thursday, and his stories and blog posts appear on ExaminerPolitics.com.

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