EPA accused of improper lobbying for water rule

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Obama administration officials are being accused of improperly lobbying to solicit public support for a proposed rule on fighting water pollution.

The Environmental Protection Agency undertook a concerted effort on the web, in social media and with environmental groups to drum up support for the waters of the United States rule and counter Republican opposition to it, testing the limits of laws meant to limit federal employees’ lobbying efforts, the New York Times reported.

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The Justice Department specifically limits “grass-roots” lobbying, which includes “communications by executive officials directed to members of the public at large, or particular segments of the general public, intended to persuade them in turn to communicate with their elected representatives on some issue of concern to the executive,” the Times said Tuesday.

The water regulation, which the EPA is planning to make final soon, would redefine the reach of its jurisdiction under the Clean Water Act.

It encountered strong opposition from Republicans, agriculture and other businesses who say the EPA is trying to massively expand its jurisdiction.

The EPA tried to fight back, including through a social media “Thunderclap” a sort of virtual flash mob organizing thousands of people to tweet in support of the rule simultaneously, among other methods to draw up support.

Jeffrey W. Lubbers, a professor of administrative law at American University, said the strategy is at least highly unusual.

“I have not seen before from a federal agency this stark of an effort to generate endorsements of a proposal during the open comment period,” he told the Times.

Industry opponents of the rule said the EPA went too far.

“The agency has relentlessly campaigned for the rule with tweets and blogs, not informing the public about the rule but influencing the public to advocate for the rule,” Ellen Steen, general counsel at the American Farm Bureau Federation, told the Times. “That is exactly what the Anti-Lobbying Act is meant to prevent.”

Sen. Jim InhofeJames InhofeFeds weigh whether carbon pollution should be measured in highway performance GOP chairman: Kids are ‘brainwashed’ on climate change Feds withdraw lesser prairie-chicken protections MORE (R-Okla.), who has been critical of the EPA and its rulemaking as chairman of the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee, said that he has asked the Government Accountability Office (GAO) to look into the EPA's outreach work. 

"The New York Times, what the EPA actually conducted, they suggested, was an unprecedented grassroots lobbying campaign and may have violated federal law," Inhofe said a Tuesday hearing. "I just want to make sure everybody knows that. I’ve already asked the GAO ... to look into this matter.

But Thomas Reynolds, the EPA’s top communications official, defended the practices, saying the agency is “just borrowing new methods that have proven themselves as being effective.”

The agency also wrote a blog post about its advocacy, saying that it is well within normal federal government practices and is appropriate.

“To ensure Americans had the facts directly from us about the proposed rule, the value of protecting streams and wetlands, and the need for clearly defined protections under the Clean Water Act, we used social media,” EPA spokeswoman Liz Purchia said in the post.

“A public outreach effort to increase awareness and support of EPA’s proposed Clean Water Rule is well within the appropriate bounds of the agency’s mission to educate and engage Americans,” she said, citing a recent opinion from the GAO that agency officials have “broad authority to educate the public on their policies and views.”

—Devin Henry contributed to this report, which was updated at 2:48 p.m.