The Rose Garden: Lobbyists Stew After Being Bounced From Boards

A tide of anger and dismay is rippling down K Street as the Obama administration implements a new policy limiting the roles of lobbyists on federal advisory committees.

[IMGCAP(1)]The policy change, described by the White House as the next step in President Barack Obama’s drive to limit influence-peddling in Washington,

could affect hundreds of lobbyists who serve on the panels, which were created by Congress in the 1970s to provide private-sector advice to the government.

By removing a key point of access to the administration, many lobbyists will be less useful to their clients, who will be forced to appoint others to take up the slack. And the information about federal government intentions gleaned from committee meetings will now be unavailable to many lobbyists as they strategize on how to work various issues.

“There is fury,— said a lobbyist who sits on one of the committees. “Absolute fury.— K Street veterans say they sit at the intersection of policy wonk-dom, Washington savvy, and the needs of business, and are therefore best suited to populate the panels.

But the White House views the move as a key step in rolling back what officials see as the open-door policy for K Street created in previous years. According to a senior White House official, the panels have been excessively dominated by lobbyists. “It is one of the ways special interests have historically shaped policy to the detriment of the public interest,— he said.

The policy was announced quietly Sept. 23 in a blog post on the White House Web site by the White House special counsel for ethics and government reform — also known as the “ethics czar— — Norm Eisen. “The White House has informed executive agencies and departments that it is our aspiration that federally-registered lobbyists not be appointed to agency advisory boards and commissions,— Eisen states. He goes on to say that “it is our hope— that lobbyists already on the panels not be reappointed.

The Commerce Department and Office of the U.S. Trade Representative took the White House “aspiration— to heart almost immediately, telling members of the panels in a letter last week that lobbyists will no longer be appointed to panels and that those on them will be out as the committees are rechartered in 2010 and 2011.

The letter, obtained by Roll Call, was signed by Commerce Department Industry Trade Advisory Center Director Ingrid Mitchem. It states: “If you are requesting consideration for reappointment, you will need to send to me a supplemental statement in writing, by letter or via e-mail, affirming both that: 1) you are not a federally-registered lobbyist, and 2) that you understand that if reappointed, you will not be allowed to continue to serve as an ITAC member if you become a federally-registered lobbyist at any time during your appointed tenure to the committee.—

The instructions will decimate the ranks of lobbyists on the trade committees, which help guide U.S. negotiators’ objectives as they pursue trade deals with other countries. One source estimated that about 130 of 330 people on the trade committees are lobbyists. Other federal agencies affected by the new policy continue to consider how they will implement it.

Administration allies in labor and elsewhere will not be spared.

“The President recognizes that some lobbyists advocate for public interest goals shared by this Administration,— Eisen wrote. “Nevertheless, the President made a commitment to the American people to reduce the influence of lobbyists in Washington.—

K Street sources describe a process they say was completely opaque and undertaken without their input. Several lobbyists who sit on the panels said they were not consulted and don’t know of anyone who was. Indeed, some sources on the panels contacted just before the Sept. 23 announcement said they were either unaware of the new policy or had heard little more than rumors.

“This was done in a vacuum,— said another business lobbyist who sits on one of the panels. “The decision was made in a room of the White House without consultation.—

Sources also complained that they had to search for the new policy, finding it finally on the White House blog.

The senior White House official denied that the new approach had been concocted without outside input. “There were consultations,— he said.

In his blog post, Eisen promised future give and take.

“As the Administration strives to make these changes, we will monitor the process and make adjustments as necessary to ensure that we are fulfilling the President’s commitment while satisfying all interested parties that their voices will be appropriately heard in the process,— he states.

Business officials argued small- and medium-sized companies will be particularly hard hit, since they can’t easily afford to pay both a lobbyist and someone else to staff the panels.

The senior White House official said the administration did not believe lobbyists were irreplaceable. “The CEOs, the folks who are actually directing businesses and organizations, are often the most effective and articulate advocates for their interests,— he said.

K Street is now mulling its next steps. Missives have been sent to officials who run the trade committees grumbling about the new policy. Many expect an effort to gin up opposition from Congressional panels that handle trade.

Officials are particularly eyeing the Finance Committee, where Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.) and ranking member Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) are believed on K Street to be closely following the issue.