Union powerhouse joined K Street in opposing Obama’s lobbyist ban

The nation's largest labor federation joined with K Street to oppose the Obama administration's guidance to ban lobbyists from serving on federal advisory committees.

In comments filed on the guidance last year, AFL-CIO lawyers criticized the policy and said it needed to be changed. After releasing an initial draft in November 2010, the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) issued its final guidance this week, much to the disdain of the influence industry.

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The 10-page letter from the labor federation to OMB says federal advisory committees are designed to have interested parties, including lobbyists, give advice to the federal government on matters that affect them.

“Such participation raises no ethical concerns, and the fact that the individual may happen to be a registered lobbyist should not change that analysis,” the letter states.

In their comment, the AFL-CIO also says that excluding individuals from panels because they are registered under the Lobbying Disclosure Act is “unjustified and arbitrary” and will “plainly most impede the union and nonprofit sector” since they do not possess non-lobbyist experts, as corporations do, who could serve on the panels.

“The upshot of the lobbyist exclusion policy, then, is not to remove ‘influence’ from advisory committees, but only to shift it away from policy-oriented groups toward the business and other large organizational entities that can most easily navigate around it,” the AFL-CIO letter states.

The labor federation recommended that the Obama administration institute a waiver process as well as exempt delegations to international bodies from the ban. In the finalized guidance released this week, OMB did neither.

Dated December 2, 2010, the AFL-CIO letter is signed by Laurence Gold, the labor federation’s associate general counsel, and Sarah Fox, the AFL-CIO’s legal counsel and representative on the International Labour Organization.

Disagreeing with criticism of the guidance, an OMB spokeswoman said it was “an important step” to increase transparency and reduce the influence of special interests.

“The president has taken steps from the start to close the revolving door between the federal government and special interests, to end the culture of powerful lobbying influence, and to dramatically expand the level of transparency in government. This guidance is an important step in those efforts, but we will continue to identify new ways to expand transparency and accountability and look forward to working with the public on this,” said Meg Reilly, the OMB spokeswoman.

A wide spectrum of groups filed comments critical of the guidance, including the Jewish Federation of North America, the National Truck Equipment Association and the American Association of Exporters and Importers.

One watchdog group, the Project on Government Oversight, was supportive of the guidance in comments it filed.

The finalized guidance has riled K Street. In a statement Thursday, Howard Marlowe, president of the American League of Lobbyists, took aim at Obama’s appointments of celebrities to federal advisory committees, such as pop singer Shakira, who is joining the President's Advisory Commission on Educational Excellence for Hispanics this week.

“This appointment is insulting to the men and women who seek to serve their country through public servitude but can’t because they choose to follow the letter of the law by registering as a lobbyist,” said Marlowe, also president of the lobby firm Marlowe & Co. “The president is sending a message to employers that it’s better to hire a friend, like a supporter who helped on his campaign, than qualified candidates with solid resumes.”

Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, has backed the guidance and said he is happy that the OMB’s move to finalize it will keep it in place even after President Obama leaves office.

“I'm fully expecting it to remain permanent, beyond the Obama administration,” Holman said. “You will have to do a separate rulemaking to reverse this and justify why you're letting lobbyists back on the panels.”

Though from last year, the AFL-CIO and others’ comments on the guidance were not released until this week — almost a year after they were first filed. Reilly at OMB said the administration didn’t release the comments until now because it needed to analyze the responses.

“Consistent with standard practice, public comments were released after the administration completed analysis of the responses provided and finalized the guidance,” Reilly said.

In January of this year, The Hill filed a Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) request for the guidance’s comments and for any OMB documents related to the decision not to release them until now.

OMB’s response to the FOIA request came this week. The response was 11 pages of emails from OMB officials, almost all redacted, and many of which were responding to reporters’ inquiries — including from The Hill — about the guidance’s comments.

While Marlowe and other lobbyists are frustrated by the guidance, Holman supports banning lobbyists from serving on federal advisory committees. He said it has been treated as a “business perk” by K Street.

“They have direct access to the administration. That is what this rule was designed to get rid of, which makes it a very constructive rule,” Holman said. “There are plenty of people inside and outside of the Beltway who have plenty of knowledge in these fields, so this won't result in any brain drain.”