Trade groups protest plan to ban lobbyists' gifts to federal employees

Trade organizations large, small and obscure are at odds with the Obama administration over a proposal that would ban lobbyists from giving gifts to federal employees.

Groups ranging from Unmanned Vehicle Systems International to the Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police registered opposition to the plan in comments submitted to the Office of Government Ethics (OGE).

Trade associations are upset that the exemption in the rule for nonprofits does not apply across the board. Many argue the regulation is counterproductive and needlessly constraining on federal employees.

“There is a lot of concern about this,” said Howard Marlowe, president of the American League of Lobbyists (ALL).

“This is not just another of the president’s statements about what he wants to do. It’s a rule that applies to this administration and any other until it is repealed.”

The proposed rule would prohibit federal employees from receiving gifts from lobbyists or lobbying organizations, and would forbid trade associations from allowing government employees into their conferences or events for free.

News organizations, 501c(3) nonprofits, higher learning institutions or groups that train individuals for jobs would be exempted from the ban.

Watchdogs have praised the Obama administration for proposing concrete rules to limit the influence of lobbyists on federal workers. 

“It is significant that they are putting these lobbyist rules into regulation. With these regulations on the books, they can be administered and enforced like all other regulations on ethics,” Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center told The Hill after the plan was announced.

But several trade groups say the rule is poorly crafted and unfair. 

“They’re relying on a definition from Encyclopedia Britannica on what trade associations and professional organizations do,” said Chris Vest of the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), which submitted comments against the rule.

“They didn’t take into account any seminars, conferences or other events that are helpful for government employees,” Vest said.

ASAE has been rallying opposition to the proposal. Approximately 450 members of the organization, which represents 22,000 trade and professional groups, signed on to the group’s comment to the OGE. Among the signers was the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation’s largest business group.

The Georgia Association of Chiefs of Police was one of the smaller groups that decided to chime in. Executive Director Frank Rotondo said he was “appalled” after the rule was pointed out by ASAE and felt compelled, for the first time in his 15 years as a state lobbyist for law enforcement, to submit a comment on a national regulation.

“You can’t paint every same branch the same color. Our trade association and a lot of others provide exactly education and mentoring support to make their members who can’t afford professional training better,” Rotondo told The Hill.

Cutting off those federal connections could cause his association to receive less federal grant money, halting many essential services for small towns and cities, he said.

“We just want the government officials who dispense the appropriate grant money to understand that it’s being used for the right reason,” Rotondo said.

But grant money isn’t the only thing at stake if OGE moves forward with the regulation.

The Association for Unmanned Vehicle Systems International’s Ben Gielow said some federal employees might choose not to attend conferences if they have to pay out of pocket. He said cutting off the free entry could cost lives down the road.

“We’re worried that they won’t learn about the latest technology in unmanned vehicle systems, and that could potentially cost lives,” Gielow said.

The new rule would constrain the ability of lobbyists to discuss new technology, grant-money needs and other federal issues like never before, Marlowe said.

“Now lobbyists are being told, ‘No, we won’t meet with you, [or] at least we won’t meet with you in the White House. We’ll meet with you in any other place besides the White House,’ and the political appointees can do that with relative abandon,” Marlowe said.

“[If this becomes a regulation,] he or she will be worrying about losing their job. There’s not going to be a ‘wink wink.’ There will be a wall.”

That wall will prompt even more lobbyists to de-register, Marlowe added, which would decrease transparency even further. Lobbyists would be even further “tainted,” as if they have “got the Plague,” he said.

The comment period for the regulation, which was slated to end Nov. 14, has been extended to Dec. 14.

Kevin Bogardus contributed.