Hollywood, pro-Israel lobby, unions seek exemptions from ban on lobbyist gifts

Associations representing Hollywood studios and the pro-Israel lobby are among the powerful Washington groups seeking exemptions from a new ethics rule prohibiting federal workers from attending events sponsored by lobbyists.

The proposed rule takes aim at Washington’s influence industry by prohibiting all federal workers — career and political appointees of the executive branch — from going to widely attended gatherings sponsored by lobbyists or groups registered to lobby. In addition, they wouldn’t be able to accept social invitations or small gifts from those on K Street.

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The Motion Picture Association of America (MPAA) argued that the rule could prevent federal workers from attending its movie screenings, while the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC) argued it could keep people from visiting its popular annual meeting. A major union for public workers argued that unions should be exempt because the law would otherwise depress union membership.

The three powers are among the groups that have submitted nearly 200 comments so far on the proposed regulation by the Office of Government Ethics (OGE). The extended comment period ended Wednesday.

The new rule would expand President Obama’s executive order on ethics, which banned accepting lobbyist gifts beyond political appointees to career federal employees as well. It also would keep the gift ban in place after Obama leaves office.

AIPAC argued that the rule would prevent federal employees from attending its annual policy meeting, which presidents, leaders of Congress and leading Israeli officials typically visit. Hundreds of AIPAC members from around the country come to Washington for the event, which is intended to highlight Israel’s political clout.

“Rather than disadvantaging membership and advocacy organizations like AIPAC, OGE should facilitate the opportunity of government officials to openly meet and field questions from American citizens concerned about U.S. foreign policy in the Middle East and the U.S.-Israel relationship,” said Philip Friedman, AIPAC’s general counsel, in the group’s comment on the rule.

The Consumer Electronics Association (CEA) warned that the rule could keep people from visiting its annual International Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, and it has asked for an exception.

The American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees (AFSCME) wants the proposed rule's definition of a lobbyist or lobbying organization changed to exclude unions. It argued in a comment to the agency that if federal employees in a union are prohibited from accepting “items of value ... such as union trinkets” or attending union events, it is possible that fewer federal workers will participate in union activities.

Unions that primarily represent federal workers, such as the American Federation of Government Employees and the National Treasury Employees Union, said the proposed rule could affect their internal operations.

One exception to the rule on widely attended gatherings allows attendence if the event is educational. The MPAA took umbrage at how the proposed rule described the trade group’s movie screenings for Washington policymakers as social events. The film industry lobby argued that those screenings are educational.

“OGE proposes to preserve a ‘substantive core’ of widely attended gathering exception for ‘substantive events that … provide a legitimate educational or professional development benefit.’ Events held at the MPAA do exactly that and should be accurately designated as widely attended gatherings, not social events as characterized in the proposed rulemaking,” said Steven Ross and Melissa Laurenza, attorneys at Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld who are representing MPAA.

Even agencies in the Obama administration have problems with the proposed regulation.

The State Department said in its comment to OGE that the proposed rule’s plan to extend the lobbyist gift ban overseas “could have the unintended consequence of hurting trade promotion efforts at our posts.”

State argued that “a key function” of its personnel is “promotion of U.S. business interests,” which often includes collaborating with U.S. companies on trade fairs and industry expositions. Many of those companies are registered to lobby and would fall under the gift ban as it’s now proposed.

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Not everyone hates the rule. It has received backing from a number of good-government groups. Watchdogs including the Campaign Legal Center, Democracy 21 and Public Citizen have generally backed the proposal and have argued for it to be strengthened even further.

After the comment period ended Wednesday, OGE began reviewing all the comments filed on the proposed rule. The agency’s officials will then decide whether any changes are needed for it. After that, OGE will send the proposal to the Office of Management and Budget for review. Once OMB completes its review, the final rule will be issued, though it’s not clear yet when that will be.

“A final rule is a very high priority for OGE, but it’s too early to tell when a final rule will be published at this time,” an OGE spokesman said.