In what would be a dramatic next step in its drive to insulate itself from K Street, the White House is strongly considering limiting the ability of lobbyists to serve on federal advisory panels designed to bring the voices of outside interests into the halls of the administration.
According to sources familiar with the deliberations, the White House is likely to either tell agencies to ban lobbyists from the panels or to provide the agencies guidance which would be hard to resist, considering the source suggesting they avoid having lobbyists serve on the committees. Some sources said the effort to limit lobbyists participation would apply to all federal advisory bodies, but several were only familiar with plans to restrict the trade-related panels.
The White House recently backtracked in its efforts to curb the influence of lobbyists, relenting over the summer to allow greater input from K Street on the stimulus bill and the Troubled Asset Relief Program.
A move to purge lobbyists from the advisory panels could open a brand new front against K Street in the Obama administrations crusade to immunize itself from influence peddling. It would force hundreds of business and labor operatives out of plum positions used to influence U.S. policy. White House allies in union shops and among environmental groups as well as officials representing other types of nonprofits would not be spared.
It is unclear when a final decision on whether to proceed with the new policy will be made. But events will force the White House hand soon, since some of the panels must be re-chartered in February 2010 and planning appointments and reappointments must begin well in advance.
The matter is said to rest with Norm Eisen, special counsel to the president for ethics and government reform, also known as the White House ethics czar. Some officials within the agencies have expressed concerns to the White House about the prospect of keeping lobbyists off the panel.
Sources said lobbyists are unlikely to be directly fired before the panels are re-chartered. Instead, those who leave in the interim would be replaced by non-lobbyists, and then when the committees are reconstituted, lobbyists who have been serving generally would not be invited to return.
The advisory bodies were organized under the Federal Advisory Committee Act of 1972. According to the USTR website, the trade committees were established in 1974 to ensure that U.S. trade policy and trade negotiating objectives adequately reflect U.S. public and private sector interests. The panels generally meet several times a year, allowing officials from business, labor and other groups to connect with key administration players and share their concerns and advice about developing issues.
Lobbyists knowledgeable about the White House deliberations are aghast at the move, questioning why the administration would deprive itself of the advice of experienced Washington hands knowledgeable about trade, the government and the needs of companies and unions.
Trade negotiators need to be able to talk to affected industries to know what is important for them to be negotiating in order to expand markets abroad and find out what sort of impediments other countries are putting up, said lobbyist Chuck Brain, president of Capital Hill Strategies.
Some of the people whove got that information happen to be registered lobbyists, because theyre working with Members of Congress on the same things, said Brain, who has worked numerous trade battles, including from his former post as chief White House lobbyist for President Bill Clinton.
Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington Executive Director Melanie Sloan questioned why others from within the industry couldnt serve on the advisory panels. But she also questioned whether the White House would achieve much by barring lobbyists from the committees other than to buttress its anti-lobbyist rhetoric.
White House officials did not respond to requests for comment.