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White House eases lobbyist ban

The White House is easing a policy that had kept registered lobbyists from serving on some federal advisory boards. 

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In new guidance issued Tuesday, the administration said registered lobbyists will once again be allowed to serve on the boards so long as they are representing a client.

The policy change, which was made in response to a court ruling, chips away at one of the main firewalls that President Obama had erected between K Street and government.

Obama in 2010 told agencies and Executive Branch leaders that registered lobbyists should not be allowed to serve on the advisory panels, some of which gather feedback and guidance from the private sector.

“Special interests exert this disproportionate influence, in part, by relying on lobbyists who have special access that is not available to all citizens,” Obama wrote in a memo.

“Although lobbyists can sometimes play a constructive role by communicating information to the government, their service in privileged positions within the executive branch can perpetuate the culture of special interest access that I am committed to changing,.”

A group of lobbyists who were booted from the committees challenged the policy, and won a victory this year when a federal judge suggested their rights had been violated.

Charles Rothfeld, a partner at Mayer Brown who represented the lobbyists in the lawsuit, hailed the new rules.

“This change vindicates the First Amendment rights of these individuals, while also allowing trade agencies to benefit from their technical expertise,” Rothfeld said.

“The government offered no substantial justification for denying these individuals the right to serve on industry trade advisory committees, and the rules actually harmed the public interest in transparency by driving many lobbyists to de-register,” he said in an email.

The new guidance from the White House’s Office of Management and Budget (OMB) makes a distinction between serving on a board as a registered lobbyist in general and serving on behalf of a client. Lobbyists who are not representing a specific interest are still banned from the boards.

“The ban applies to persons serving on advisory committees, boards, and commissions in their individual capacity and does not apply if they are specifically appointed to represent the interests of a nongovernmental entity, a recognizable group of persons or nongovernmental entities (an industry sector, labor unions, environmental groups, etc.), or state or local governments,” OMB wrote in a Federal Register notice about the change.

Lawyers told The Hill that while the lawsuit was geared toward the various Industry Trade Advisory Committees at the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) and the Commerce Department, the revised guidance could also apply to industry boards at other agencies.

The fight over the advisory panels has been playing out in the courts for several years. In January, a federal appeals court ordered a new hearing for trade association lobbyists who were denied reappointment to boards at Commerce and USTR.

Judge David Tatel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit said judges should reexamine the lobbyists’ First Amendment claims, since the trade panels “exist for the very purpose of reflecting the viewpoints of private industry.”

He pointed out that employees from a corporation could serve on the boards, while outside lobbyists representing the company could not. 

“The court may also want to ask the government to explain how banning lobbyists from committees composed of representatives of the likes of Boeing and General Electric protects the ‘voices of ordinary Americans,’” he said, referring to Obama’s comments in the memo to agency heads banning lobbyists.

The lobbyists involved in the challenge were Erik Autor who formerly worked at the National Retail Federation; Nate Herman, who represented the Travel Goods Association on an advisory board; former National Council of Textile Organizations president Cass Johnson; Stephen Lamar of the American Apparel & Footwear Association; Bill Reinsch of the National Foreign Trade Council; and Andrew Zamoyski of Zamoyski and Co.

This story was last updated at 5:56 p.m.