Limits tighten for lobbyist gift-giving

September 28, 2011

A proposed strict ban on lobbyists’ gifts to federal employees is part of the Obama administration’s efforts to change the culture of Washington when it comes to the influence of lobbyists.

The proposed rules governing contacts with lobbyists stem from President Obama's ethics standards for the executive branch, enacted in an executive order signed on his first full day in office. The order followed a campaign season in which Obama and other Democrats assailed the role of lobbyists in the policymaking process.

But translating political rhetoric into rules for federal workers can create some headaches.

Federal employees have, since 1992, been barred from accepting gifts from anyone seeking to influence the government, including lobbyists. The proposed changes eliminate most of the exemptions that were available in the past — such as gifts worth less than $20 and invitations to “widely attended” events — when the givers are registered lobbyists or an organization that employs them.

That could force government employees to check whether gift-givers are lobbyists by looking in disclosure filings.

The proposed rules have generally been hailed by good-government groups and attacked by lobbyists. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

The administration seems focused on curbing even casual social contact between lobbyists and government employees. The Office of Government Ethics said as much in its notice of proposed rulemaking, acknowledging that, under the old rules, the threat of a gift-for-results transaction was remote.

“It is increasingly recognized that the more realistic problem is not the brazen quid pro quo,” the agency wrote, “but rather the cultivation of familiarity and access that a lobbyist may use in the future to obtain a more sympathetic hearing for clients.”

The agency writes that invitations to social events “can provide the opportunity for a lobbyist not only to discuss any pending issues with the employee but also to foster a social bond that may be of greater use in the long run.”

Hill keeps exemptions

Congressional staff and lawmakers are subject to House and Senate rules, so exemptions similar to those that would be ended under the proposed rules for federal employees would remain in effect on Capitol Hill.

The new rules would prevent government employees from accepting free attendance at conferences held by trade associations and other lobbying organizations unless the employees have a speaking role. Even then, the free admission would only be for the day when the employee speaks.

As with all regulations, the details can be quite complex, and some exemptions would remain in effect, notably for universities and charities.

But those exemptions are not popular with either lobbyists or ethics watchdogs. Lobbyists could argue that those exemptions would give universities and charities an unfair advantage. Universities, in particular, are highly dependent on federal funding.

“There’s no basis for it and we strongly object to separating out anybody,” said Howard Marlowe, president of the American League of Lobbyists and a lobbyist representing local governments. “If you’re lobbying, you’re doing the same thing that I’m doing.”

Meredith McGehee, who helped shape congressional rules as the policy director of the Campaign Legal Center, said the exception could be used as a loophole for lobbying groups if they created their own charities.

“These days if you’re smart, your lobbyist isn’t really paying for anything,” McGehee said.

IRS probes sought

Groups condemning the role of money in politics have asked the Internal Revenue Service to investigate four political groups that have registered with the agency as nonprofit organizations.

The tax code allows nonprofit groups to make political expenditures as long as involvement in elections is not their “primary purpose.” The main thing at stake is disclosure of donors — nonprofit organizations can keep their backers secret while straight political organizations must publicly report the names of funders.

The two advocacy groups that have complained, Democracy 21 and the Campaign Legal Center, charge that groups like the conservative American Crossroads and the liberal Priorities USA are taking advantage of the tax code to avoid disclosure.

An IRS spokeswoman said privacy laws prevent the agency from commenting on such cases.

The letter is the latest in a series of moves to pressure groups to disclose donors.

Jonathan Collegio, a spokesman for Crossroads, called the complaint “frivolous,” from a “highly ideological group that wants to sic the IRS on its opponents.”

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