Lobbyists Pining for Guidance

Posted July 14, 2009 at 6:20pm

The Office of Management and Budget said Tuesday that it expected to release formal guidance this week on a May 29 White House blog posting that significantly relaxed restrictions on lobbying for stimulus funds.

The lack of a quicker follow-up by the OMB specifically spelling out the new rules means that federal agencies are still operating under the old rules, which forbid lobbyists from having conversations with federal officials about specific client projects.

“I am disappointed that it is taking this long,— said Dave Wenhold, president of the American League of Lobbyists. “We are starting to hear from other lobbyists that meetings are still being held up even though the blog [posting] is out there,— he added.

OMB spokesman Tom Gavin said in an e-mail late Tuesday, “We expect to provide the official guidance before the end of the week.

“We’ve received substantial comments on the proposal and wanted to ensure that the direction given to departments and agencies is effective and appropriate,— the e-mail continued.

Wenhold had sent a letter to White House ethics adviser Norm Eisen earlier this month to try to prod the White House to publicly release the revised regulations. So far, Wenhold said, Eisen has not written back.

The White House singled out lobbyists in a March 20 memo, specifically forbidding them from meeting or speaking with executive branch officials on stimulus projects or applications at any time.

Instead, lobbyists had to submit written comments about proposed stimulus funding. The comments would be posted publicly within three business days.

Lobbyists were allowed to talk to administration and agency officials as long as the conversation was about “general Recovery Act policy issues,— according to the memo.

On May 29, however, the White House narrowed the ban on oral communications by federal lobbyists to a shorter time period, “after competitive grant applications are submitted and before awards are made,— according to the blog entry, which had been written by Eisen.

In another change, the blog posting also applied the ban on oral communications during that time period to lobbyists and nonlobbyists alike.

The decision to change the policy followed a 60-day review period that the Obama administration set for the OMB to look at the new lobbying rules.

Several groups and lobbying entities, including the American League of Lobbyists, the AFL-CIO, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, had raised concerns about the rules.

Lobbyists representing local governments, and who deal with the administration’s rules on a regular basis, were among those hardest hit by the original March 20 directive.

Lobbyist Howard Marlowe, for one, is still operating from the first directive the OMB released.

The ban on lobbyist communication on stimulus projects has hurt clients’ ability to know the specifics when working on proposals, he said.

“This is translucency rather than transparency,— said Marlowe, the president of Marlowe & Co., which specializes in representing small coastal cities and local governments.

“No one is quite sure what is going on, on the other side of the window. You can’t just throw something up on a blog and say, Folks, it’s OK. Things are changing here. We’re listening to you. We’re adjusting.’ That’s ridiculous,— Marlowe said.

Marlowe said he’s concerned about the next stage of dealing with stimulus funds, when they are being implemented by clients who might need clarification about specifics. Without a specific rule from the OMB, it will be hard to help clients out, he said.

Of course, not everybody is frustrated by the delay.

Ethics lawyer Ken Gross said he considers the blog post to have effectively changed the lobbying rules.

“I consider the policy to have changed clearly as of that date,— Gross said. “Since they have promised something additional, it’s curious to where it is.—