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President Barack Obama can't win when it comes to lobbying and ethics reforms.
The president's first round of lobbying and gift restrictions won mixed reviews at best when they first took effect soon after his inauguration.
Now a new set of proposed ethics rules for executive branch employees has drawn fresh complaints from K Street professionals, who say they are too stringent, and from reform advocates, who warn they lack teeth. Both are filing critical comments with the Office of Government Ethics, which published the proposed rules earlier this month.
"We are going to call upon OGE to try and strengthen this somewhat further," said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist with Public Citizen, which will submit comments in conjunction with the Campaign Legal Center. Both groups hailed the OGE plan as a step forward but warned that it opens some loopholes.
As proposed, the OGE plan would expand the existing lobbyist gift ban that applies to political appointees and extend it to all executive branch employees — a much larger population. The rules would prohibit the employees from accepting free attendance at events such as trade shows, education programs and seminars, except in cases where the employee is a speaker at the event.
There's an exception to the ban, however, which has ruffled feathers on both sides of the ethics divide — it would not apply to "nonprofit professional associations, scientific organizations and learned societies." Reform advocates don't like that exception because many nonprofit 501(c)(3) organizations are controlled by lobbying affiliates, Holman said, opening the way for abuses.
"That could pose a problem," Holman said. "I would like the exception more narrow."
But trade association executives argue that events put on by advocacy groups are just as educational as those put on by professional organizations, which often represent influential lawyers, doctors and other heavy hitters.
"The language is troubling," said Jim Clarke, senior vice president of public policy at the American Society of Association Executives, which recently wrote OGE officials to request a meeting to air the group's concerns. "It sort of makes the educational content from those groups seem as though it isn't very valuable."
Confectioners and bakers who descended on Capitol Hill last week sweetened their various deals — literally. In meetings on the Hill and around town, members of the National Confectioners Association and the American Bakers Association never forgot to bring along a few sweet treats to share.
Dark chocolate and candies flavored with tropical fruits were popular this year, said Larry Graham, president of the National Confectioners Association and chairman of the Coalition for Sugar Reform, which represents more than a dozen food, fair-trade and consumer groups.
"The hotels love having us because every time we leave a committee room, we leave the candy there," Graham said, "and it always disappears."
Bonbons aside, coalition members delivered a hard-hitting message in their meetings: End sugar subsidies for growers, which Graham argued have the counterintuitive effect of making sugar more costly and harder to get. Sugar growers remain influential, but at a time when the farm bill is up for reauthorization and budget talks are targeting agricultural subsidies, Graham said, the candy people see an opening.