Budget office keeps comments on lobbyist policy under wraps

The Office of Management and Budget has not released public comments on its guidance banning lobbyists from federal advisory boards, frustrating public interest groups who find the nondisclosure out of sync with President Obama's transparency agenda.

More than a month has passed since the Dec. 2 deadline for comments on the guidance issued by the administration. Observers in Washington expected OMB to release comments on the guidance — which is controversial among lobbyists — soon after the deadline.

"Why OMB would not make the comments available is beyond me. It is inconsistent with the president's agenda of transparency and good government," said Gary Bass, executive director of OMB Watch.

Other watchdogs also said the comments should be released.

“Public disclosure of all submitted comments, of course, must be provided and I have no doubt it will be provided,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen.

At issue is an administration policy that was announced in a September 2009 blog post by Norm Eisen, the outgoing White House ethics czar. In the post, Eisen said the White House was asking federal agencies to keep lobbyists off their advisory boards and committees in order to “reduce the influence of lobbyists in Washington.”

Several lobbyists, especially those serving on boards advising the Commerce Department on trade matters, protested the policy. Despite their complaints, the White House moved forward, with Obama asking OMB last year to craft official guidance for the agencies.

But with the deadline for comments come and gone, OMB still has not disclosed who weighed in on the policy.

“Comments received are not public at this time,” said Meg Reilly, an OMB spokeswoman. OMB did not respond to questions about when the comments will be released and whether any changes have been made to the guidance.

OMB is under no legal obligation to release the comments.

“They are not obligated to make the comments public since this is not a rule-making process,” Bass said. “This is guidance. They are voluntarily asking for public comments.”

Nevertheless, keeping the comments under wraps has angered opponents of the lobbyist ban.

“Nothing about this policy change has been transparent. The new policy was originally published on the White House blog — with no advance warning or opportunity for stakeholder input — as a fait accompli,” said Howard Marlowe, president of the American League of Lobbyists (ALL) and head of the firm Marlowe & Co. “This fell like a bombshell on many registered lobbyists who had been serving on federal advisory boards and commissions for years, and didn't even get to review their Lobbying Disclosure Act activities before being ejected from those boards.”

The League submitted comments on the guidance that blasted the policy. Others also submitted comments that were collected by The Hill.

The American Society of Association Executives, for example, commented that the policy would “eliminate many positive contributions and qualified, reasoned voices from the advisory boards and commissions that help the government shape policy on thousands of issues.”

The Project on Government Oversight posted their comment on their website, which said that they support “many aspects” of the policy but think the government should consider instituting a waiver process to allow some exceptions.

Holman, of Public Citizen, said he did not end up commenting on the guidance because it “remains a positive and constructive implementation” of Obama’s executive order that bans lobbyists from serving in government positions.

Bass with OMB Watch also did not file a comment but, unlike Holman, he disagrees with the policy. Bass said he has also raised the issue of not releasing comments on the guidance with White House staff a week ago but did not get a response.

“This is the old focus that lobbyists should be vilified rather than the real problem that needs to be addressed, which is money in politics. Right idea, wrong approach,” Bass said.