Lobbyists Adapting to Their Change in Status

Posted September 11, 2009 at 10:25am

Lobbyists are rarely cast as knights in shining armor doing the work of the people in Washington, D.C.

But ever since President Barack Obama was sworn into office earlier this year, lobbyists say they have been facing an even greater public perception problem along with the new world order in Washington.

“There’s a lot of hypocrisy going on,— one veteran lobbyist said. “We actually provide a lot of good service, and they are just beating up on lobbyists for the sake of beating up on them, while at the same time they are calling them up and talking to them, too.—

While lobbyists may be easy scapegoats for politicians railing about Washington’s failings to pass legislation, there haven’t been major changes in the rules governing federally registered lobbyists, according to ethics lawyers.

At the Congressional level, no new laws have been enacted regulating lobbying since the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act of 2007.

For the past two years, lobbyists have complied with the increasing number of public filings, including filing quarterly lobbying disclosure reports. They also are required to file semiannual individual lobbying reports, which detail the political contributions they have made to elected officials.

Obama did make rule changes for entering and lobbying the administration. One major revision came as an attempt to close the revolving door.

Obama put out an executive order in January banning anyone who has been a federally registered lobbyist over the past two years from joining the administration. While there have been a couple of notable waivers, the order has largely been enforced.

Obama also has banned any administration official who leaves for the private sector from lobbying the executive branch during his tenure, a move similar to the Clinton administration.

One area of controversy that has been largely diffused came out of the stimulus funding bill.

The White House originally singled out lobbyists, forbidding them from meeting or speaking with executive branch officials on stimulus projects or applications at any time. Lobbyists were relegated to communicating on specific projects with officials through written comments.

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

After a review period, the White House has largely moved away from its previous order.

Federal agencies are now supposed to publicly disclose when lobbyists meet with officials regarding projects. The rules also require that contact made by anyone once the agencies are considering the project must be disclosed.

Despite the limited changes to the actual rules governing K Streeters, lobbyists say there has still been a chilling effect on their activities, which they encounter at the agencies and administration when officials decline to see them or require them to not speak during meetings.

Despite the perception problem, lobbyists are continuing to be hired and spending on lobbying increased during the first six months of 2009 compared with the previous six months.

“With the profusion of complex legislation, they are really critical to the lawmaking process because there’s no way that Members of Congress and their staffs are sufficiently [staffed] to foresee as many unintended consequences that may be imbedded in legislation,— said Ken Gross, an ethics lawyer at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom.

American League of Lobbyists President David Wenhold says that lobbyists are even more important as Congress takes up the critical issue of health care reform.

Wenhold is also working to change the perception problem lobbyists face. The trade group of lobbyists has hired a public relations firm and is reviewing its fall strategy to try to improve the image of lobbyists.

Wenhold said he takes pride in his profession and isn’t afraid to tell his children what he does for a living.

“My kids are very proud of what I do and the people that I represent and how I represent them,— Wenhold said. “I always explain to them lobbyists aren’t the ones who vote on things.—