WASHINGTON -- When it comes to Newt Gingrich's post-speaker activities on the Hill, it all depends on what your definition of "lobbying" is.
In Monday's debate, Mitt Romney charged Gingrich with "influence peddling." But Gingrich insists that he was merely working as a historian when he collected $1.6 million from Freddie Mac over a six-year period. Which in some version of reality could be true. Broadly speaking, a historian who is hired to dig ditches is still a historian.
But, strictly speaking, Gingrich did sign a contract with the mortgage giant at a time when Republicans wanted to end its special status as a government-backed private entity. And, he was a cheerleader for Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae, according to political action committee donors who heard him speak in 2007 before he became a critic insisting that others who backed the mortgage companies should be jailed.
Under pressure from the Romney campaign, Gingrich's consulting firm released a copy of one year of its contract with Freddie Mac, which leaves another five years unaccounted for and only shows earnings of $300,000. That leaves a significant time gap and a chunk of change, but the operative question is whether Gingrich acted as a lobbyist for the company. The question is crucial to the issue of character because the American people and congressmen deserve to know whether someone is being paid to advocate for a position.
A lobbyist for Freddie Mac and Fannie Mae whose tenure overlapped with Gingrich's told me on background that both signed the same contract. This person immediately registered as a lobbyist and said that Gingrich was clearly exerting his influence, though he may have been able to maintain a legal, if not entirely ethical, distance from the definition of "lobbying."
The law is very specific about what constitutes "lobbying," having to do with, among other things, the number of times one meets with legislators and/or how many times one speaks to a particular group. If you come just under that number, then you're technically within legal bounds.
Gingrich was familiar with relevant law, as one might imagine, and in 2000 even hired the co-author of a legal text on lobbying to advise him. He didn't want to step over the line, clearly, and may not have. But it is fair to ask whether such line-walking is appropriately transparent and forthright for a presidential candidate. If you only meet once with a high-level government official to advance a position for which you are being paid, does anyone really believe that's not lobbying?
Gingrich's claim to have been hired as a historian, meanwhile, is a hard sell when no such role exists. It is also a stretch for him to present himself as an anti-establishment, Reagan-conservative rebel when he is raking in money for his association with companies, some of whose interests are anything but conservative.
Yet another mother lode for Gingrich has been the health care industry. Various companies paid Gingrich $55 million between 2001 and 2010, according to Bloomberg News. When asked what the companies received in return, Gingrich told The Washington Post that they got to visit with "a really important guy who really knows a lot and who really has lots of information." That person would be Gingrich's Holy Trinity -- Me, Myself and I.
Gingrich also earned more than a million from drugmaker Novo Nordisk, reportedly to help expand the U.S. market for its diabetes treatment. Again, there's nothing wrong with this as long as Gingrich was honest about his role with the company. The company's own annual report to shareholders listed Gingrich under "public-policy activities," which, the company added, "are often referred to as lobbying."
He also personally urged GOP congressmen to support the $395 billion Medicare prescription drug benefit, according to, among others, Rep. Jeff Flake and former Reps. Jeff Bradley and Butch Otter. Gingrich is unapologetic for supporting the Medicare benefit, especially while campaigning in Florida where an appreciative elderly population is otherwise known as a significant voting bloc. And it was, after all, a Republican initiative under President George W. Bush, even though many conservatives opposed it then as now.
Gingrich has insisted that throughout these dealings he was merely acting as a private concerned citizen, chatting up his colleagues about issues of mutual interest. This may well be the case, even within the legal definition of "lobbying," but most people don't get paid millions to shoot the bull over massively lucrative legislative initiatives.
For Gingrich in Wonderland, as Humpty Dumpty explained to Alice, "When I use a word, it means just what I choose it to mean -- neither more nor less."
Kathleen Parker's email address is kathleenparker(at)washpost.com.
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