White House lobbying rules could hurt smaller trade groups, leaders say

Leaders at smaller trade groups worry they could be particularly hurt by a new White House ban on lobbyists serving on advisory committees.

They argue that their organizations do not have the staff or the money to hire more employees to get around the new rule. Executives at these associations often do double duty, managing the trade group and lobbying on their industry’s behalf.

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Some business associations will either have to stop lobbying or give up their spots on advisory boards, which are scattered throughout the federal government.

“It’s not like we have the ability to go out and hire another person to get around this rule,” said Cass Johnson, president of the National Council of Textile Organizations (NCTO). “It’s not a well-thought-out policy, because the guys who have money can get around it. But small associations like ourselves can not.”

NCTO represents American textile manufacturers and workers. It has three employees, who are all registered lobbyists. Johnson is unsure if he should deregister to keep his spot on an advisory committee, or leave the committee but keep lobbying.

“You have to decide whether this information is worth reducing your time on the Hill. You lose both ways,” Johnson said.

Johnson serves on an industry advisory committee that consults the Commerce Department on trade negotiations involving the textile industry. As a part of the panel for the past decade, Johnson has been privy to confidential information, such as proposed U.S. trade negotiating positions, before it went public, and has advised the government on several major trade deals, from the Central American Free Trade Agreement to Doha.

Being a member of the committee allowed Johnson to tell administration officials how to best help his sector, which he considers vital.

“These are huge decisions. They can make or break an industry,” he said.

The president’s memo is only guidance to agencies and, ultimately, it is the decision of the agency heads whether to follow it or not. But some agencies have begun to ask panel members to submit additional statements in writing to prove they are not lobbyists now and will not be during their participation on an advisory board. The outreach suggests the latest restriction on K Street has teeth.

Experts on the executive branch agreed that the new White House request could hurt smaller groups, including public interest watchdogs, due to their meager resources and small staff size.

“I think it is going to have a differential impact and it is going to disadvantage public interest groups. I don’t think it is going to turn out the way they have intended,” said Sid Shapiro, a law professor at Wake Forest University. “Those people are sort of all-hands-on-deck. They lobby, go to Congress, go to agencies. Those are their policy experts too.”
Norm Eisen, special counsel to the president for ethics and government reform, noted in a blog post announcing the new guidance that it would apply to advocates who share the administration’s goals, as well as to critics. Eisen told The Hill, however, that Obama believes the guidance helps to fulfill his campaign promise to reduce K Street’s influence in Washington.

“The president has long been committed to reducing the role that special interests play in the policymaking process,” Eisen said.

In addition, the administration will have a smaller set of applicants to choose from. Paul Light, a New York University professor, said the advisory committees could be plagued by the same problems as in Obama’s political appointment process, which has tried to avoid lobbyists as well.

“It will make the search process that much more difficult,” Light said. “It forecloses some access to expertise that they might have found useful.”
Eisen countered that the lobbyist ban on advisory panels would open the process to more Americans outside of Washington.

“You will see a refreshing candor that you haven’t seen before. We don’t think all the intelligence and expertise in the country resides on K Street,” Eisen said.

Both Light and Shapiro said advisory committees have unique power in the federal government. Lawsuits challenging agency rulemakings often note the contrary advice provided by advisory panels. Conversely, agencies can use the panels to slant or suppress information to meet the administration’s policy goals, Light and Shapiro said.

Watchdogs knocked the Bush administration for stacking advisory committees with industry insiders who pushed a big-business perspective. But both Light and Shapiro said the new Obama guidance may not resolve the objectivity issue.

“It is a pretty blunt instrument for separating wheat from chaff. What you want to do in the political appointment process is get closer to people who bring expertise on these decisions, not ideology,” Light said. “Going after registered lobbyists is not necessarily the core of the problem.”

Some lobbyists said they weren’t surprised by the new rules, given the  anti-lobbyist sentiments the president expressed during the campaign.

Auggie Tantillo, executive director of the American Manufacturing Trade Action Coalition, said the president promised to erect firewalls between his administration and K Street.

To comply with the new rule, Tantillo is planning, once his term is up, to assign another member of his four-person staff to take his place on a panel that advises Commerce on trade.

“I think it would be disingenuous for me to deregister, considering the amount of time I spend lobbying on Capitol Hill,” Tantillo said.

Others are not as resigned as Tantillo, though. They are hoping Obama will reconsider his position.

Stephen Lamar, executive vice president of the American Apparel and Footwear Association, serves on two different trade advisory committees that consult Commerce.

“We are putting our emphasis on asking the administration to reconsider this policy,” Lamar said. “This policy doesn’t achieve any benefit. It doesn’t increase transparency and it weakens the trade advisory committee process.”

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