Lobbyists have been furiously lobbying the Obama White House to oppose restrictions on their ability to lobby.
The kafuffle began on September 23 when special counsel to the president for ethics and government reform Norm Eisen wrote that "the White House has informed executive agencies and departments that it is our aspiration that federally-registered lobbyists not be appointed to agency advisory boards and commissions."
How many Industry Trade Advisory Committees — ITACs — are there?
The Washington Post says the system of these committees is "so vast that federal officials don't have exact numbers for its size; the most recent estimates tally nearly 1,000 panels with total membership exceeding 60,000 people."
"These appointees to boards and commissions, which are made by agencies and not the President, advise the federal government on a variety of policy areas," Eisen wrote. "Keeping these advisory boards free of individuals who currently are registered federal lobbyists represents a dramatic change in the way business is done in Washington."
The White House wasn't kicking lobbyists off the ITACs. Rather, Eisen wrote, "there are many registered lobbyists who currently serve on these committees as a result of a prior appointment. When these appointments expire, it is our hope that agencies not reappoint anyone who is currently registered as a federal lobbyist at the time of their potential reappointment."
Needless to say, there was an uproar on K Street.
A unanimous vote at a meeting of the American League of Lobbyists Board of Directors on October 19 reflected opposition to Eisen's views.
Sixteen lobbyists who chair ITACs — including executives from Boeing, Harley-Davidson, the International Association of Drilling Contractors, Fanwood Chemical Inc., IBM and others — wrote to the president to protest the decision.
In another letter to Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and US Trade Representative Ron Kirk, the lobbyists said that a "quick review of the impact of this new policy suggests that dozens of the most active — and most knowledgeable — Committee members who generate many of the documents needed by the Committee and our trade negotiators will be dismissed once the new charter term begins. This occurs because individuals who specialize in trade policy matters in their particular sectors often find that such specialization and expertise pushes them above the 20 percent lobbying activity threshold that triggers registration under the Lobbying Disclosure Act" or LDA.
The letter said "the sudden ejection of over 130 advisors from the system will depopulate many of the committees and instantly remove many voice from around the table."
These are people whose "talents" were likely irreplaceable, the letter said. "We understand that public perceptions of lobbyists have been tainted by the criminal and unethical activity of a few individuals," they wrote. "We must stress however that it is wrong to prejudge an entire class of people because of these actions."
Eisen wrote back on October 21.
"I assure you that our action was not provoked, as you suggest, by the 'criminal and unethical behavior of a few individuals,'" he wrote. "Indeed there have been some egregious abuses, but this decision was not meant to besmirch everyone who is a registered federal lobbyist. It's the system as a whole that concerns us. It's an indisputable fact that in recent years, lobbyists for major special interests have wielded extraordinary power in this town. The result has been a national agenda too often skewed in favor of the interests that can afford their services."
Eisen suggested that powerful industries are well represented in Washington, DC — with banking lobbyists paid to "gut meaningful financial reforms," an "army" of health insurance industry lobbyists unleashed to "frustrate" health care reform efforts, oil and gas company lobbyists sent to undermine energy reform all present and accounted for. "But industry representatives shouldn't be given government positions from which to make their case," he wrote.
"While we recognize the contributions some of those who will be affected have made to these committees, it is an indisputable fact that in recent years, lobbyists for major special interests have wielded extraordinary power in Washington DC, resulting in a national agenda too often skewed in favor of the interests that can afford their services," Eisen said again in an October 21 blog post. "It is that problem that the President has promised to change, and this is a major step in implementing that change."
On October 28, David G. Wenhold, the president of the American League of Lobbyists and Peter G. Mayberry of its board of directors wrote to President Obama belittling the notion that his "administration will be better served by precluding industry experts from serving on Federal advisory groups simply because they are legally required to comply with provisions contained in the Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995."
Wenhold and Mayberry took "exception to Mr. Eisen’s efforts to paint all LDA registrants with the same broad brush and demonize our profession. In addition, by taking the steps outlined in both of these communications, we are specifically concerned that your administration will deprive career public officials of the knowledge, perspective, and insight offered voluntarily and free of charge from many of the industry experts who will be precluded from serving as formal advisors under this policy, due solely to their LDA status."
They also took issue with the fact that no one had told them about this decision. Rather, "instead of offering some preliminary signal that this shift in long-standing policy was being contemplated and/or inviting debate on such a drastic change, it was delivered, seemingly fully formed and final, as a blog posting by Mr. Eisen."
Eisen responded to Wenhold and Mayberry in a November 9 letter taking issue with their failure to "address the main point of our October 21 letter: that it's the system as a whole that concerns us."
He disagreed with a number of points raised by the lobbyists, stating "we do not believe that the Administration's actions will 'deprive career public officials of the knowledge, perspective and insight' offered by lobbyists. Should members of the Administration wish to hear from anyone affected by this policy, they are free to call on such individuals for testimony or input. What the policy restricts is giving these lobbyists a government position at the same time they are initiating their own separate contacts with the government to advocate for the positions of the special interests they represent."
He also took issue with the idea that the lobbyists should have gotten a heads-up on the decision, and with the notion that individuals affected "are experts who
merely 'happen to be' lobbyists."
Also on November 9, a number of lobbyists currently on ITACs met with members of the White House staff. The White House, seemingly relishing this spat, posted the list of attendees.
"Just a quick post to report on a meeting today with a group of lobbyists and others who currently chair Industry Trade Advisory Committees (ITACs)," Eisen wrote on his blog that same day. "The group had objected to the Administration's new policies barring the appointment (and reappointment) of federally registered lobbyists to agency boards and commissions…
"We explained to the ITAC chairs that this issue is not about the few corrupt lobbyists or specific abuses by the profession, but rather concerns the system as a whole. For too long, lobbyists and those who can afford their services have held disproportionate influence over national policy making… we decided that while lobbyists have a right to petition the government, it would best serve the interests of a fairer and more representative democracy if we limited their ability to do so from special positions of privileged access within the government. The result will be a Washington that is more reflective of all of America."