Trade groups fear gift ban after the election

Trade groups are concerned that the Obama administration might enact a rule after the election that would ban federal workers from attending lobbyist-sponsored events.

The gift ban was first proposed by the Office of Government Ethics (OGE) in September 2011, and has remained on the shelf for more than a year. The regulation would expand an ethics order from President Obama that banned political appointees from taking gifts from lobbyists, applying the same standard to all career federal employees.

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Trade groups from across the political spectrum strongly oppose the rule, arguing federal officials would be less likely to attend trade shows and other industry events if they are required to pay an admission fee.

Chris Vest, director of public policy for the American Society of Association Executives (ASAE), said his group is concerned that the rule will be back in play after votes are cast in November.

“We need to remain vigilant on that, particularly if they win reelection in November. … The administration may choose to revisit the issue when they are no longer consumed by the election,” Vest said. “It seems as if they have tabled the proposed rule for now. What that means for after the election, we’re not sure.”

It’s unclear what the administration’s plans are for the regulation, which has not moved forward since its comment period ended in December. A spokesman for the White House declined to comment for this piece.

Supporters of the broader gift ban are disheartened that the administration hasn’t followed through.

“To tell the truth, I’m concerned. When we filed our comments in support, there was a lot of opposition from trade groups and other lobbying entities,” said Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen. “Once they started receiving public comments, OGE’s gung-ho attitude seemed to fade away. That is when I felt I had good cause to worry.” 

During the comment period on the rule, OGE was flooded with statements from all manner of interest groups — including the American Israel Public Affairs Committee (AIPAC), the American Federation of State, County and Municipal Employees and the Motion Picture Association of America, to name just a few — taking issue with it. 

OGE received more than 200 comments in all, including a letter from nine House Democrats.

“The proposed regulations as written could have a detrimental effect on many our constituents, including businesses, federal employees and eventually the public who might ultimately bear the additional and avoidable cost if the private and government sectors cannot freely exchange information,” said the letter from the Democrats, which was dated Dec. 13, 2011.

The lawmakers who signed the letter included Reps. Gerry Connolly (D-Va.), Jim Moran (D-Va.) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), who hail from congressional districts in the Washington, D.C., metro area that are heavily populated by federal workers.

Vest lobbied lawmakers last year to sign onto the letter expressing concern over the proposed rule, and a number of trade groups went to the White House to discuss changing the proposal.

In January, trade group executives — including ASAE President and CEO John Graham, American Frozen Food Institute President and CEO Kraig Naasz and National Retail Federation (NRF) President and CEO Matthew Shay — met with officials in the White House Counsel’s office. While the officials did not commit to changing the proposed rule, they were receptive to suggestions, according to Vest.

David French, NRF’s senior vice president for government relations, said his group “remains skeptical about the goal of these regulations.”

“It is only natural that when the government increases its role in the economy that groups affected by the regulations would want to do the same, and making our members’ First Amendment rights harder to exercise is fundamentally unfair,” French said.

Others are also watching to see if the rule moves forward.

“It’s an issue that’s important to us and we continue to monitor the situation for related developments,” said Corey Henry, a spokesman for the American Frozen Food Institute.

Vest said ASAE is in “a holding pattern” right now to see what the administration does next. Some groups are excluded from the proposed lobbyist gift ban, such as certain nonprofits and professional societies, and Vest argues the White House could broaden the exemptions to include trade groups.

“In our mind, all they would need to do to address our concerns is include trade associations in the list of organizations exempted from the rule,” Vest said. “There’s no difference between a training program sponsored by a trade association or a professional society. They can both offer the same educational value.” 

Holman with Public Citizen said OGE is busy implementing the STOCK Act right now, but hopes the lobbyist gift ban rule has not been forgotten.

“If anything does happen, it will likely happen after the election,” Holman said. “I’m hoping that OGE has not shelved this important plank of Obama’s ethics platform.”