US lobbyist groups protest restrictions on administration contact

US lobbyist groups protest restrictions on administration contact

[JURIST] Leaders of the American League of Lobbyists, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, and American Civil Liberties Union [advocacy websites] on Friday asked the administration of US President Barack Obama [official website; JURIST news archive] to eliminate or change restrictions it has put on contact that lobbyists can have with administration officials concerning American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009 [text, PDF; official website] projects. The restrictions were created by a March 20 memo [text] from Obama, in which he ordered that officials could only consider written input on the projects from lobbyists, and that the communications must be posted on a government website. In a meeting with administration ethics advisor Norm Eisen, the groups asked that they be allowed to have in-person meetings with officials about the projects, and that information on administration meetings with groups other than registered lobbyists also be published.

In a joint letter [text, PDF] written shortly after the rules were issued, the groups argued that the ban was an ineffective way of reducing the influence of special interests, and arbitrarily limited the free speech rights of lobbyists:

[B]anning lobbyists from speaking with executive branch officials will not, in and of itself, preclude petitioning the government. Rather, such a ban simply will ensure that such contacts occur between government officials and non-lobbyists, who are not governed by any regulations or penalties for misconduct. In fact, banning lobbyists – often people with experience and subject matter expertise navigating the intricacies of federal regulations and agency bureaucracy – may actually inhibit the speedy and responsible expenditure of funds on worthy projects and applicants.

In this sense, the directive is both over-inclusive and under-inclusive. It limits the free speech rights of certain registered lobbyists with absolutely no pecuniary or other improper interest in Recovery Act projects, applications or applicants. It fails to restrain non-registered lobbyists who have substantial pecuniary interests in the Recovery Act. The purposes of the directive can be achieved in a far more effective fashion, while at the same time preserving the speech rights of the maximum number of Americans.

The administration has said it will review the policy [WSJ report] in late May. Earlier this month, JURIST guest columnist William Luneburg [faculty profile] criticized constitutional arguments [JURIST op-ed] made by the lobbyist groups, arguing that the restrictions were needed to limit the disproportionate power of such groups.