Super Ethics Man saves the day, defeats Lex Lobbyist

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Norm Eisen, President Obama’s scold-in-chief Special Counsel to the President for Ethics and Government Reform, posted an item on the White House blog today announcing that the administration has finally transformed Washington into a corruption-free utopia asked executive agencies and departments to refrain from appointing anyone who is a federally-registered lobbyist to agency advisory boards and commissions.

As Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington has pointed out, this policy would allow people from the same organizations that employ lobbyists to take these seats, begging the question: if this policy is really about reducing special interest influence, what exactly is the difference between a lobbyist for firm X and a lawyer for firm X? Does registering as a lobbyist suddenly bestow one with black magic power to influence government officials?

In the same Roll Call story, Sloan suggested the policy would only accomplish the Obama administration’s goal of “buttress[ing] its ‘anti-lobbyist rhetoric.'” I also found something that Sloan said recently interesting, and I’d suggest it applies to the administration and not just Congress:

[Sloan] went further to suggest that the real problem is not with special interests, but with legislators. “[Congress comes] up with all these new penalties for lobbyists and they don’t want to focus instead on their own conduct,” she said. Members of Congress are quick to point the finger of unethical conduct at lobbyists and special interest groups without noticing the three fingers pointing back at them.

This policy [see National Journal’s Under the Influence blog, which I think first reported this announcement] continues the Obama administration’s effort to reduce special interest influence in Washington arbitrarily crack down on federally-registered lobbyists writ large because of the misdeeds of a few. This demagogic effort to scapegoat lobbyists — it’s so easy to blame special interests for everything — is disappointing and violates the spirit of the First Amendment right to petition government for a redress of grievances.

First, the administration issued an executive order barring people from serving in the administration who have registered as a lobbyist within the past two years, which it promptly violated whenever it felt like it shouldn’t apply to certain people [Eisen’s note today about board appointments only mentions “federally-registered lobbyists,” not specifying any sort of “cooling off period,” so one assumes that federally-registered lobbyists could just presto-chango de-register and then be deemed kosher for a fed slot].

Then, the Obama administration banned government officials from speaking to lobbyists about projects in the stimulus legislation, which also arbitrarily punishes lobbyists, disrespects the spirit of the First Amendment and makes it increasingly likely that people with expert information affected by government action have more difficulty expressing their views to policy-makers. This policy, with some modifications, remains intact.

Improving ethics in government does not require the Obama administration to slap the entire lobbying industry with the regulatory equivalent of a Scarlet Letter. It is a lazy, overbroad and counterproductive solution to the problem of corruption in Washington. After Eisen announced the administration’s stimulus lobbying restrictions, he engaged in a Kabuki dance about getting input from lobbyists and others who thought the regulations were a terrible idea. He promised he would. This time, Eisen just fired away — apparently deciding that consulting with lobbyists about the regulations was just too much trouble.

“I hope before they do anything they have the courtesy to give us a call,” American League of Lobbyists President Dave Wenhold told The Hill yesterday. Um, yeah, Norm’s call must have gone straight to your voicemail, Dave…

Welcome to the Washington of ‘change,’ where precious little federal officials are now safe from the monstrous horde of lobbyists.

The Center for Competitive Politics is now the Institute for Free Speech.