Lobbyists decertify after Obama ban

More than 20 members of federal advisory committees canceled their registrations as lobbyists after the Obama administration banned K Street from the panels in 2009, according to a review by The Hill.

The Hill compared the membership rosters of 16 Industry Trade Advisory Committees (ITACs) with lobbying disclosure records and found at least 22 of the panels’ more than 300 members canceled their lobbyist registrations after the White House policy was announced.

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Overall, roughly 58 of those serving on the ITACs were registered to lobby at some point. 

Critics said the move by many to deregister shows the administration’s policy is flawed and encourages lobbyists to move into the shadows. 

Howard Marlowe, president of the American League of Lobbyists, called the number of formerly registered lobbyists serving on committees “shocking, [but] not surprising.”

“These are people who I presume are experts in their field who have something to contribute and want to contribute, and the only way they can do that is by deregistering,” said Marlowe, also president of lobby firm Marlowe & Co. “I presume that they haven’t all gone into the priesthood.”

The number of formerly registered lobbyists serving on federal advisory panels is likely much larger. The Hill’s review focused on only 16 panels, but there are approximately 1,000 advisory committees in the federal government, according to the General Services Administration.

Under the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA), any individual who spends 20 percent of his or her time lobbying for a client is required to register with the Senate. He or she also needs to make contact with at least two covered government officials to meet the registration threshold.

President Obama’s attempt to limit lobbyist influence in his administration has largely focused on people who are registered, although that standard only covers some of the people who work in the influence industry.

Lobbyists angered by the ban who once served on ITACs are suing the Obama administration and asking a court to declare the prohibition “unconstitutional.” 

A White House spokesman said Obama has worked hard to slow the revolving door between the government and private sector. He cited an executive order from the president that prohibited lobbyist gifts, clamped down on the hiring of lobbyists by the administration and prevented appointees from lobbying the White House after working there.

“Our goal has been to reduce the influence of special interests in Washington — which we’ve done more than any administration in history,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz.

After the advisory committee ban was announced, Norm Eisen, then the White House ethics czar, said he would find it “disturbing” if lobbyists canceled their registrations to stay on the panels.

“I would hope that industry representatives would not seek to circumvent the rules in order to retain their preferred position on these bodies,” Eisen wrote in an Oct. 21, 2009, letter responding to ITAC leaders.  

Lobbyists who canceled their registrations and remained on ITACs gave different reasons for their decisions. Some said they changed how they went about their jobs to stay on the committees, while others said they were never lobbyists and had only registered out of caution. Many said their work on the advisory committees was too valuable for their companies to give up.

David Logsdon, executive director of TechAmerica’s Space Enterprise Council, said he altered his work to focus on public policy events and forums instead of meetings with congressional aides.

“The work on industry trade advisory committee at the Department of Commerce has allowed my clients’ positions on issues to be elevated to the key decisionmakers at the Department of Commerce that make the decisions on that industry of trade,” said Logsdon, who first registered in 2004.

Intel’s Greg Slater, who first registered to lobby in 2007, said the company moved general trade issues “that don’t require a lot of content expertise, such as expressing support for trade agreements,” to other internal and external lobbyists for the company so he could continue serving on a panel. Before that, he rarely spent 20 percent of his time lobbying, he added.

Barry Solarz, senior vice president of trade and economic policy at the American Iron and Steel Institute, was registered out of “an abundance of caution,” said Kevin Dempsey, the trade group’s senior vice president of policy and general counsel.

Having first registered in 1999, Solarz has served on an ITAC since 2003 — “an integral part of his job,” Dempsey said — so the trade group reviewed Solarz’s lobbying activities in the fall of 2009 and found that he had not “been engaged in any significant lobbying recently.”

The business association then restructured Solarz’s job to “ensure that he would not cross the line into lobbying going forward.”

“Having somebody [on the ITAC] who understands how steel products could be affected by proposed trade rules is very important for us to make sure that the new trade rules don’t negatively affect our industry,” Dempsey said.

Richard Holwill, vice president of public policy for Alticor, said he, too, registered to lobby out of caution. Since the ban has been announced, Holwill said, he keeps “a meticulous record” of whom he talks to and limits his contact with government officials to avoid hitting the registration threshold. 

“I lobby, but I lobby foreign government officials,” said Holwill, who serves on an ITAC. “These officials are not covered by the LDA, and the Obama administration does not object to this type of lobbying.”

Others said they were never lobbyists and had been registered in error. Though a member of an ITAC, Tom St. Maxens, president of St. Maxens & Co., was still registered to lobby last quarter for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association.

“That was my mistake,” said Bill Sells, vice president of government relations for the association. Sells said St. Maxens is a consultant on trade to the trade group and that he would amend lobbying filings going back to 2006 to correct the error.

“I put him down and went the extra mile. I over-disclosed,” Sells said. “He has never represented us before the federal government or a member of Congress. He advises me.”

Others said they registered under the LDA but never lobbied.

“I did register for some clients because I thought it was conceivable that I could reach the thresholds for them, but I never did,” said Sue Presti, president of Public Policy Resources and an ITAC member.

Presti, who had been registered to lobby sporadically since 2000, said she still has clients and is mindful of the ban.

“The nature of the work for my clients at the moment doesn’t require me to register,” Presti said. “I recognize in the future that things could change and I might have to.”