The White House today announced significant changes being crafted in how the administration will regulate stimulus lobbying, in a new post today on WhiteHouse.gov from Norm Eisen, Special Counsel to the President for Ethics and Government Reform.
The administration's move today to announce additional lobbying restrictions on stimulus spending recognizes that political influence is wielded by more than just registered lobbyists, moving to curb it in the most sensitive circumstances, while preserving the strongest part of the original program: the move to real-time online disclosure of contacts from registered lobbyists.
The new policy, according to the post: (bold added)
First, we will expand the restriction on oral communications to cover all persons, not just federally registered lobbyists. For the first time, we will reach contacts not only by registered lobbyists but also by unregistered ones, as well as anyone else exerting influence on the process. We concluded this was necessary under the unique circumstances of the stimulus program. Second, we will focus the restriction on oral communications to target the scenario where concerns about merit-based decision-making are greatest –after competitive grant applications are submitted and before awards are made. Once such applications are on file, the competition should be strictly on the merits. To that end, comments (unless initiated by an agency official) must be in writing and will be posted on the Internet for every American to see. Third, we will continue to require immediate internet disclosure of all other communications with registered lobbyists. If registered lobbyists have conversations or meetings before an application is filed, a form must be completed and posted to each agency’s website documenting the contact.
The first two points are really the same measure: the administration is banning all oral contacts from anyone, not just lobbyists, and targeting that provision to a very specific scenario.
Relying on the distinctions of the Lobbying Disclosure Act (which defines who must register as a lobbyist) was too easy to skirt, since the influential are often not lobbyists. This was one of the main complaints from CREW, ACLU, and ALL, who suggested lobbyists were being unfairly singled out, and pointed to well-heeled CEOs and campaign contributors who are clearly influential, but often fall below the 20 percent threshold for lobbying registration. Sunlight has often made this point as well, and CREW has already praised the forthcoming guidance.
It may seem radical to ban all oral communications between administration officials and the public, but this seemingly radical move is tempered by two points: first, the restriction applies to a narrowly defined situation where the administration has deemed merit-based decision making to be most sensitive; and second, the administration connects stimulus spending, in its gravity and sheer size, to the scope of potential corruption:
We concluded this was necessary under the unique circumstances of the stimulus program.
For perhaps the strongest evidence of the sort of merit-based decision making these policies seek to cultivate, we can look to Eisen's post itself for evidence of our government engaging in good faith, in public, to find the best solutions to fit our most pressing problems. How often before now have we seen informal blog posts announcing a new policy before guidance has been issued, and suggesting it's still under consideration?
This iterative, public approach to problem-solving should be interpreted as a sign of strength, and suggests that bold steps don't just bring political risk, as they often can, but can also offer a productive strategy for finding public policy solutions. This is especially true of lobbying reform, where previous reforms have all come too late, as reactions to gross abuses. When the administration is willing to engage in a fruitful dialog to identify the best course of action, disagreements become relationships, and mistakes become lessons.
Other administration officials should follow Eisen's lead, and see what the public (and stakeholder communities) have to offer.