Obama down on K St.

Late last Friday, the White House issued a memorandum that has sent K Street scrambling.

Lobbyists are used to getting roughed up by the Obama administration, but they are still trying to get off the mat after being floored by the March 20 memo.

It stated that registered lobbyists are not allowed to speak to Obama administration officials about implementation specifics of the economic stimulus bill. That ban includes in-person contact as well as “telephonic” conversations. (What about over e-mail? Facebook? Gchat?)

ADVERTISEMENT
If registered lobbyists want to communicate with administration officials on the stimulus, they must “submit a communication in writing,” according to the memo.

Lobbyists are allowed to talk to administration officials on the stimulus if they are talking about “general policy issues,” not “particular projects.”

There are many loopholes in and problems with this ill-fated policy. Clients of the lobbyists don’t have any restrictions, so they could call administration officials with specific concerns. But that’s why clients hire lobbyists in the first place. The K Street insiders know whom to call and how to speak the Washington jargon. The clients, by and large, don’t.

Howard Marlowe, president of Marlowe & Co., told The Hill on Monday: “It is a bunch of hogwash. … I am totally outraged by what they are doing. I think it is just ridiculous.”

Dave Wenhold, president of the American League of Lobbyists, said, “It borders on the unconstitutional.”

Some new ethics measures put in place by the administration make sense. The president’s new policies for greater transparency on communication between the executive branch and lobbyists should be applauded. But many of the provisions in the March 20 memo go too far.

This newspaper has warned about the ethics pendulum swinging too far in the wake of scandals on Capitol Hill. It is wise to try to prevent more ethics controversies, but the danger of overreacting is obvious.

Watchdog groups have hailed the March 20 directive, but even if you like the new anti-lobbying rules, there are some key unanswered questions.

Why should these lobbying restrictions be limited to the implementation of the stimulus bill? Why not apply them to the implementation of healthcare, energy and appropriations bills?

We are not advocating that; far from it. But there is a big inconsistency here. Some lobbyists are focusing solely on the stimulus. Others are tracking other bills. Yet stimulus lobbyists have to play by a different set of rules than the others.

Let’s keep the transparency provisions of the March 20 memo. And let’s allow lobbyists to exercise their First Amendment rights and make a phone call, send an e-mail or set up a meeting with Obama administration officials.