Sunday, May 31, 2009

USA: anyone seeking broadband stimulus funds has to file written documentation if speak to officials

[the hill] Lobbyists and government watchdogs are applauding revisions made by the White House on Friday to lobbying restrictions on stimulus funds.

After completing a 60-day review last week, the administration modified the rules to extend a speaking ban not just to lobbyists but to others who contact government officials about specific stimulus projects. But that ban only occurs now after a grant application has been filed for the project.

Those interested in the project have to file their views in writing with administration officials, which will then be disclosed on the Internet. All contacts with lobbyists will still have to be disclosed, though.

The changes were announced in a blog post by Norm Eisen, the special counsel to President Obama for ethics and government reform, on the White House’s website Friday evening.

Originally, the speaking ban on stimulus projects was only for registered federal lobbyists, which led to anger on K Street for being singled out by the White House. The changes seem to have won over some of the administration's harshest critics.

“These new rules put everyone on an equal footing, which is all that we ever asked for,” said Dave Wenhold, president of the American League of Lobbyists (ALL) and co-founder of Miller/Wenhold Capitol Strategies.

“ALL supports transparency and accountability on anyone, registered lobbyists or non lobbyists, petitioning our government,” Wenhold said.

ALL was joined by Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW) and the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) in a coalition that campaigned for changes.

One concern of the coalition was that lobbying by those not registered as lobbyists, such as lawyers or consultants, was not being disclosed under the restrictions. That seems to be answered by the amendments, though.

“With this new restriction, the White House has leveled the playing field to ensure that corporate bigwigs and major donors who do not register as lobbyists do not benefit from an inside track unavailable to those less politically influential,” said Melanie Sloan, CREW’s executive director.

Other public interest groups praised the changes as well.

“This policy is designed to ensure that the massive infusion of government funds to stimulate the economy is spent openly, by the books and with the public’s interest in mind,” said David Arkush, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch.

Another worry was that banning speech from a class of individuals created a constitutional conflict. Some groups who lobbied against the restrictions are still concerned that the ban remains in place, though it has been extended to everyone, not just lobbyists, interested in specific stimulus projects.

“Today the White House took a welcomed first step in reforming its lobbying restrictions,” said Michael Macleod-Ball, ACLU’s chief legislative and policy counsel. “It is disconcerting that there must be any ban on oral communications.”

Others said they would need to review the new rules further.

“We appreciate that the Administration listened to input and made some significant changes, narrowing the scope of the direct-contact prohibition and applying it equally to everyone,” said Steven Law, general counsel for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. “At the same time, we are concerned that lobbyists still appear to be treated differently with respect to the requirement that officials have to disclose certain discussions with lobbyists that they do not have to disclose for non-lobbyists.”

Law said the Chamber plans to analyze the new provisions and see whether they might have a “chilling effect” on government officials wanting to meet with lobbyists.

According to Eisen, the Office of Management and Budget is working on issuing detailed guidance for the amended lobbying restrictions and is consulting other federal agencies and outside experts to help in its drafting.

K Street, watchdogs praise new lobbying rules

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