By Kevin Bogardus - 10/22/09 12:05 AM EDT
“I think it could well do a lot of damage to the U.S. trade negotiating position,” said Susan Schwab, who served as the country’s trade representative from 2006 to 2009 under President George W. Bush. “I find it very worrisome and quite foolish. Why deny yourself input?”
“Lobbyists traffic in relationships, working both the Congress and federal agencies to bend legislation and policies on behalf of their clients,” said Norm Eisen, special counsel to the president on ethics and government reform.
“And their clients deserve to be heard. But industry representatives shouldn’t be given government positions from which to make their case,” Eisen wrote on his White House blog in response to a letter from companies and business groups criticizing the new policy.
The most impassioned protests against the guidance issued last month by the White House have come from trade advocates. Lobbyists representing the agricultural, electronic, textile and other industries serve on 16 Industry Trade Advisory Committees (ITAC), which are organized in part by the Commerce
Department and USTR to advise the government during trade negotiations.
On Monday, all 16 ITAC chairmen sent a letter to President Barack Obama asking him to reconsider the guidance. The letter was copied and sent to congressional leaders on trade as well as Commerce Secretary Gary Locke and USTR Ambassador Ron Kirk.
Eisen’s letter, posted on the White House blog, was a response to the ITAC letter.
Schwab said she had relied on lobbyists as conduits of information ever since she started at USTR in 1977, describing their help as “invaluable.”
As a low-level trade negotiator early in her career, Schwab said she talked on the phone from Geneva with lobbyists for U.S. winemakers after leaving the negotiating room with Japanese officials over talks to open access to their market.
In the summer of 2008, lobbyists for the American Farm Bureau Federation, the National Association of Manufacturers and Oceana aided Schwab during the latest round of Doha talks, she said.
The lobbyist guidance by Obama was like “shooting yourself in the foot,” Schwab said.
“You need to have input from all stakeholders,” Schwab said. “You are going to end up with people who will be less knowledgeable about the issues.”
The White House has argued the guidance will bring new opinions and expertise to Washington.
In response to the ITAC chairmen’s letter, Eisen said CEOs and other business officials more familiar with the daily operations of companies would join the advisory committees instead of lobbyists.
“Your arguments that only lobbyists can bring the requisite experience to provide wise counsel, or that reaching beyond the roster of industry lobbyists for appointees will result in a ‘lack of diversity,’ are unconvincing on their face. We believe the committees will benefit from an influx of businesspeople, consumers and other concerned Americans who can bring fresh perspectives and new insights to the work of government,” Eisen said.
Schwab serves on the boards of directors for FedEx and Caterpillar, companies that are major U.S. exporters. But she is not a registered lobbyist and does not intend to lobby in the future, she said. She teaches a course on globalization at the University of Maryland.
The letter, written by lobbyists for the American Apparel & Footwear Association, Alticor, IBM and other companies, is the most concerted pushback yet against the new White House guidance.
Agencies can follow the guidance at their own discretion. Most agencies though, including USTR, are choosing to adhere to the new ban, according to a past survey by The Hill.