Lobbyists Fighting Back

K Street Calls to Ease Limits on Stimulus Work

Posted March 31, 2009 at 6:13pm

Frustrated with the Obama administration’s recently minted lobbying restrictions on stimulus funds, the American League of Lobbyists has teamed with Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the American Civil Liberties Union to protest the rules change.

The trio of strange bedfellows requested major changes to the new requirements in a letter Tuesday to White House Counsel Gregory Craig.

The action is part of a multi-pronged strategy that ALL, the trade group for lobbyists, is employing to fight the restrictions.

Should the administration refuse to alter the lobbying requirements, a legal challenge is “seriously [being] discussed,— said ALL President David Wenhold, who wrote the letter along with Caroline Fredrickson, director of the ACLU’s Washington, D.C., office, and CREW Executive Director Melanie Sloan.

“Over the past 24 hours, four different law firms have contacted me, giving me their advice and opinions and options on it,— Wenhold added.

Ethics lawyer Ken Gross of Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, who is opposed to the rule, says he has been giving several clients advice on the new rule.

“I think those challenging this have a reasonably good chance of winning,— Gross said. “We’re not just talking about free speech rights, but the actual right to redress the government.—

ALL, which is reviewing its options, has also been contacted by a number of groups to form a coalition on the right to petition the government, according to Wenhold.

While the ACLU and CREW did not directly respond to inquiries about bringing a legal challenge, they are reviewing the constitutionality of the Obama administration’s provisions.

“I can’t give you a definitive answer one way or another,— Frederickson said in a conference call with reporters. “Certainly we’ll look at whether there is legal basis for a challenge.—

The Obama administration memo released late last month says lobbyists cannot meet or speak with executive branch officials regarding specific stimulus projects or applications.

Instead, lobbyists are relegated to submitting written comments, which will be posted publicly within three business days, about proposed stimulus funding.

Lobbyists may talk with administration officials as long as the conversation is about “general Recovery Act policy issues,— according to the memo.

However, executive branch and agency staff must still document the date of those meetings, who was at the meetings and what was discussed for the public to review within three business days.

The groups are upset about the administration’s move to single out lobbyists and only allow them to communicate with officials in writing.

“Banning lobbyists from in-person and telephonic communications will not advance the stated purpose of ensuring public transparency and accountability and avoiding improper influence and pressure in the decision-making process,— Wenhold, Sloan and Fredrickson wrote.

The letter points out that several individuals have greater influence on the stimulus spending process than lobbyists, including non-lobbyists who made significant campaign contributions to Obama and Congressional candidates and powerful corporate executives. The letter-signers also note that Members of Congress are not prohibited from influencing funding decisions.

The groups argue that their constitutional rights are being violated because the rule applies only to lobbyists.

Alternatively, they would like to “require disclosure of any and all communications with executive branch officials regarding a particular project, application or applicant funding,— according to the letter.

Opening the communications to all individuals who discuss stimulus projects would increase the transparency, they argue.

“Real transparency is the better way to go,— Sloan said.

CREW, the ACLU and ALL are following other groups, like the Center for Competitive Politics and the American Society of Association Executives, which have sent their own letters to the administration complaining about the rules.

Still, not all lobbyists are on board with the public relations and legal campaign to reverse the rule.

While they are upset with the Obama administration’s continued demonization of lobbyists, several lobbyists said that taking legal action would play into the administration’s hands.

Similarly, watchdog groups such as Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal Center have all stayed out of the current campaign to revise the rules.

“We generally support the efforts that the administration is making to change the culture of Washington and to change the role of lobbyists in influencing government decisions,— said Democracy 21’s Fred Wertheimer.

Still, there could be revisions to get at the meat of the issue more effectively, according to Wertheimer.

“We would hope that the administration takes a second look at the way they have done this because there are ways to ensure that there is transparency and there is a role for lobbyists in this process without going as far as they have done,— Wertheimer said.