Lobbyists Irked By Obama Restrictions The Obama administration limits what lobbyists can do, and liberal critics suggest that companies getting federal funds should stifle their Washington representation. Are those really such good ideas?
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Lobbyists Irked By Obama Restrictions

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Lobbyists Irked By Obama Restrictions

Lobbyists Irked By Obama Restrictions

Lobbyists Irked By Obama Restrictions

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Let's count the ways President Obama's operation has shown its disdain for Washington lobbyists.

In 2007, the Obama for America campaign told federally registered lobbyists it wouldn't accept their contributions. That was really OK with a lot of them.

But then, after Election Day, the Obama organization restricted the roles lobbyists could play in the transition.

The day after Obama was sworn in, he signed an executive order that sharply restricts lobbyists' job prospects in the administration. Under the order, an agency can't hire a lobbyist to work in his or her area of expertise unless the White House grants a waiver. So far, it has granted four.

And finally, in memos following passage of the economic stimulus package, the White House says registered lobbyists can advocate for specific stimulus projects only in letters to be posted online.

"They don't go into a meeting and ask, 'Are you a felon, are you a child molester, are you a terrorist?'" says Dave Wenhold, president of the American League of Lobbyists. "But they will ask if you're a lobbyist, and ask you to leave."

Wenhold says the policy has resonated through the administration, and lobbyists have been frozen out of meetings that have nothing to do with stimulus spending. He argues that registered lobbyists — unlike others who ask for stimulus funds — are legally bound to disclose their activities. He says the Obama team has its logic backward.

"Why would you take somebody who is accountable and take them out of the system," he asks, "and encourage people who aren't accountable and put them in the system?"

Wenhold took his complaints to the White House last month, meeting with White House ethics lawyer Norm Eisen. Along with Wenhold were representatives of the American Civil Liberties Union and the watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, plus attorney Ken Gross, representing the lobbyists group.

"Lobbyists have been separated as if they're some evil force," says Gross, who's laying the groundwork for a possible lawsuit. He says the no-lobbyists policy violates equal-protection rights, free speech rights and the First Amendment right to petition the government for redress of grievances.

Even setting the constitutional issues aside, Gross notes that corporate lobbyists are not the only ones caught by the policy. "There are 15 states that actually engage outside lobbyists," he says. "There are not-for-profit groups who are unable to participate."

But the White House isn't flinching.

Eisen, the White House ethics lawyer, spoke Tuesday at a George Washington University conference on lobbying. He said the administration's goal is to shut off lobbying pitches based on special relationships. He said voters should have an assurance "that everything the lobbyist is saying to the decision-maker about that particular project, the lobbyist is saying to you, too."

One of the administration's allies here is the liberal group Public Citizen. Its ethics maven, Craig Holman, is also concerned about lobbying by companies that got government bailouts. He calls it "influence peddling for the pursuit of their own interests," and said they're not really private companies anymore.

The top 10 recipients, including Citigroup and General Motors, together spent nearly $10 million to lobby Congress and the administration in the first quarter of 2009.

Holman says, "They've accepted so much in public funds, that they should — must — change their attitude — away from viewing themselves as a private special interest into viewing themselves as part of the public interest."

A Senate bill would address this, although it's kind of a long-shot. It would amend an existing law, which bars nonprofits from using federal grant money to lobby, expanding the law to cover the bailed-out companies.

Lobbyist Scott Talbott with the Financial Services Roundtable, an industry group, rejects the entire approach, saying that lobbying is an integral part of a corporation's recovery plan.

"The interests of the shareholders and the bond holders still need to be maintained," he says. "Just because a company was willing to accept TARP money doesn't mean those interests go away."

That would be true, he says, even when the federal government is the biggest investor of all.