Hope. Change. All That Jazz. (A Continuing Series)

by Pejman Yousefzadeh on December 10, 2011

This is for all of the people who believed–or still believe–that the Obama Administration would put up a heroic resistance against the machinations of lobbyists, or that lobbyists and Democrats just don’t mix:

Last year, the Obama administration vowed to stop for-profit colleges from luring students with false promises. In an opening volley that shook the $30 billion industry, officials proposed new restrictions to cut off the huge flow of federal aid to unfit programs.

But after a ferocious response that administration officials called one of the most intense they had seen, the Education Department produced a much-weakened final plan that almost certainly will have far less impact as it goes into effect next year.

The story of how the for-profit colleges survived the threat of a major federal crackdown offers a case study in Washington power brokering. Rattled by the administration’s tough talk, the colleges spent more than $16 million on an all-star list of prominent figures, particularly Democrats with close ties to the White House, to plot strategy, mend their battered image and plead their case.

Anita Dunn, a close friend of President Obama and his former White House communications director, worked with Kaplan University, one of the embattled school networks. Jamie Rubin, a major fund-raising bundler for the president’s re-election campaign, met with administration officials about ATI, a college network based in Dallas, in which Mr. Rubin’s private-equity firm has a stake.

A who’s who of Democratic lobbyists — including Richard A. Gephardt, the former House majority leader; John Breaux, the former Louisiana senator; and Tony Podesta, whose brother, John, ran Mr. Obama’s transition team — were hired to buttonhole officials.

And politically well-connected investors, including Donald E. Graham, chief executive of the Washington Post Company, which owns Kaplan, and John Sperling, founder of the University of Phoenix and a longtime friend of the House minority leader, Nancy Pelosi, made impassioned appeals.

In all, industry advocates met more than two dozen times with White House and Education Department officials, including senior officials like Education Secretary Arne Duncan, records show, even as Mr. Obama has vowed to reduce the “outsize” influence of lobbyists and special interests in Washington.

The result was a plan, completed in June, that imposes new regulations on for-profit schools to ensure they adequately train their students for work, but does so on a much less ambitious scale than the administration first intended, relaxing the initial standards for determining which schools would be stripped of federal financing.

And here is your laugh of the day:

“The haranguing had zero effect,” said Cass R. Sunstein, the White House official who oversees rule making. Rather, he and other administration officials said they listened to what they viewed as reasonable arguments and decided to narrow the scope of the original plan.

Irrespective of whether one thinks that the regulations concerning for-profit educational institutions ought to have been weakened, it is obvious that they were weakened because of lobbying. To claim otherwise is to either demonstrate unbelievable ignorance concerning the facts of the situation, or to engage in bald-faced lying. Of course, I am glad that this story got reported; it makes it all the more easy to remind people of what I have written many times in the past: Barack Obama is not the Messiah. He is just another politician.

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