More lobbyists are expected to terminate their registrations because of the White House’s announcement this week that federal agencies should not appoint them to advisory boards.
It is unclear how many people will be affected by the decision, but at least 1,000 federal advisory committees report to the General Services Administration under the Federal Advisory Committee Act, and many of them now include registered lobbyists.
Calman Cohen, president of the Emergency Committee for American Trade, a pro-trade coalition of business leaders, sits on a 27-member panel that provides advice to the Commerce Department on trade policy in the electronics industry. He is one of 14 panel members who were registered to lobby last quarter for clients that include IBM, Oracle and eBay Inc.
Cohen said he hopes the White House will institute a waiver process to exempt lobbyists from the policy, much like they have done with an executive order Obama signed on the first day of the administration to stop the revolving door between K Street and government.
"I would hope a way can be found to take account of all citizens, whether they are a lobbyist or not, when it comes to the design of trade policy to benefit the United States," Cohen said.
The announcement was made in a blog post on the White House’s website on Wednesday by Norm Eisen, special counsel to the president for ethics and government reform. He said the administration recognized lobbyists often act in the public interest by serving on agency boards and commissions, but that President Barack Obama made a promise during his campaign to tamp down on the influence of special interests.
"If we are going to change the way business is done in Washington, we need to make sure we are not simply continuing the practices of the past," Eisen wrote.
The announcement said that lobbyists serving on advisory panels may finish their terms but should not expect to be reappointed. Eisen also wrote that the White House would monitor the new policy and make changes to it if necessary.
Doug Pinkham, president of the Public Affairs Council, said the White House position is "absurd" and the administration does not understand how private-sector expertise can help the federal government. He said lobbyists are bound to de-register as lobbyists while continuing to help their companies.
"The administration’s efforts to punish citizens for following the law and registering as lobbyists is bound to have unintended consequences," Pinkham said.
"One of them will be that people working at companies, unions and nonprofits will try to de-list themselves if they don’t reach the time threshold for registration. And that will reduce transparency in the public policy process."
Dave Wenhold, president of the American League of Lobbyists (ALL), agreed with Pinkham.
"This is another ill-advised policy that will decrease transparency. If lobbyists want to stay on boards, they will just deregister," said Wenhold, who also is a co-founder of Miller/Wenhold Capitol Strategies Inc.
"Whether a person is a registered lobbyist or not should not be relevant to the selection process," said Stephanie Lester, vice president for international trade for the Retail Industry Leaders Association. She serves on another trade advisory panel for Commerce that consults on distribution services.
Lester said she will not terminate her lobbying registration but believes others might de-list because they were only registered in the first place out of an abundance of caution.
The decision will have a major impact in the world of trade, as 16 different panels advise Commerce on the issue. Advisory committees have sometimes been criticized as an avenue for special interests to exert undue influence on government.
The Center for Public Integrity, an investigative journalism group, found in 2003 that four registered lobbyists sat on the Defense Policy Board, which advises the Pentagon. The group published the report after Richard Perle, the board’s chairman, resigned under criticism for his ties to defense contractors.
But Perle was not a registered lobbyist when he resigned from the board.
Lobbyists are debating how to respond to the decision. ALL, along with Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the American Civil Liberties Union, campaigned against White House restrictions placed on registered lobbyists working on stimulus projects, winning some concessions.
Wenhold said he is now taking feedback from the lobbying community to coordinate the group’s next move. He also plans to touch base with the White House, which did not contact the lobbying group before issuing its policy.
"Norm has my number. All it takes is a phone call," Wenhold said.