At the White House, Lobbyists Complain of Restrictions
By Dan Eggen
A group of lobbyists were invited into the White House Friday, where they aired complaints about new restrictions on registered lobbyists attempting to land stimulus money for their clients.
Under rules announced by President Obama last month, lobbyists are banned from making phone calls to government agencies about specific stimulus projects and must put all such communications in writing. Lobbyists may speak to government officials about general policy issues, the rules say, but all communications will be logged and posted on a government-run website focused on the stimulus plan.
An unusual alliance of groups, including the American League of Lobbyists, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), and Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), complain that the restrictions are unfair and impinge on First Amendment rights to petition the government. Representatives of the groups held a meeting on the complaints Friday afternoon with Obama's chief ethics adviser, Norm Eisen, who was one of the original co-founders of CREW.
Melanie Sloan, CREW's executive director, said Eisen and other administration lawyers seemed "surprised" that CREW, the ACLU and the lobbying league agreed on so many points, since the public-interest groups are often at loggerheads with lobbyists. She also said that the Obama officials "seemed comfortable with their position."
One White House official, who declined to be identified discussing the meeting, said the restrictions are "tough but fair to make sure that lobbyist communications are as transparent as possible.... They took exception to some of the specifics of the restrictions and we had an honest exchange about our differences."
The stimulus lobbying guidelines were introduced last month as a 60-day experiment of sorts, meaning that Eisen and his aides will be able to tweak the policy if needed, White House officials say. Sloan said it was unclear from the meeting whether the administration was considering any major revisions.
But Dave Wenhold, president of the lobbyist group, said in a statement that he is "look forward to working with the administration to create a policy which truly increases transparency for all, as opposed to the current guidelines which singles out some."
Wenhold's group has threatened to sue the administration on First Amendment grounds if the rules are not modified.
"Through the U.S. Constitution granting citizens the right to petition government, lobbyists help citizens communicate factual information on a wide range of important issues," Wenhold said. "...Keeping lobbyists out of the discussion also keeps out the millions of citizens they represent."
Posted at 6:33 PM ET on Apr 24, 2009
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