In the years between his stepping down as Speaker of the House and running for the presidency, Newt Gingrich became a wealthy man. While no one I am aware of has alleged that he did anything illegal or even improper in amassing his fortune, as a feature in today’s New York Times makes clear, his attempt to portray his Center for Health Transformation as a think tank rather than a lobbying firm is somewhat disingenuous.
Gingrich was not registered as a lobbyist, and his work on behalf of the Center’s “members” — companies that paid up to $200,000 to belong to the group in exchange for access to Gingrich and for his help in promoting their efforts — did not conform to the legal definition of lobbying in that he did not specifically write bills or advocate on behalf of legislation that would benefit his clients. But as the article makes clear, much of what he did do appears to be indistinguishable from the sort of tasks lobbyists routinely perform. Though Gingrich claims he never took money to support an idea that he didn’t otherwise support, a close look at his activities leads to the conclusion that what he did was, if not lobbying, then a form of influence peddling that undermines his claims of being an outsider in Washington or a visionary historian/consultant.
It should be understood that despite the taint of illegitimacy that clings to the word lobbyist, there is really nothing wrong with what they do. Every citizen has a right to petition the government and seek to persuade legislators to do things that will benefit causes, groups or individuals. By banding together to create lobbying groups, both citizens and companies are able to make their voices heard. Lobbyists and less easily defined players like Gingrich and his Center make money by parlaying their expertise and access to official Washington that makes this process easier.
But the ability of some to pay for the services offered by Gingrich does tend to rub voters the wrong way. Moreover, Gingrich’s current pose as a critic of the Washington establishment doesn’t jive with the way in which he peddled access to the high and mighty in exchange for extravagant fees.
As the Times writes:
Mr. Gingrich’s ability to reach leaders like Mrs. Clinton was a selling point for the Center. A PowerPoint presentation for prospective members advertised its “contacts at the highest levels” of federal and state government. Paying $200,000 a year for the top-tier membership, it said, “increases your channels of input to decision makers” and grants “access to top transformational leadership across industry and government.”
Again, there’s nothing illegal about any of this, but it doesn’t really sound like a think tank, does it?
Scrutiny of Gingrich’s prosperous business is not a matter of muckraking or trying to create a scandal where none exists. But it does make it clear that the onetime Washington outsider who was seen as a bomb-throwing troublemaker by the Republican congressional leadership during his early years in Congress decades ago cashed in the same way many other ex-politicians have done once they left office. While Gingrich may say his goal now is to transform Washington, he spent a decade profiting as a run-of-the-mill D.C. insider who could help game the system for a price. Which means the only thing he’s guilty of is hypocrisy.