New Rules for Lobbying Are Keeping Some Nonprofits' Activists Out of Government

With states eager to spend, President Barack Obama announced new guidelines Friday limiting the role lobbyists can play in determining how $787 billion in economic stimulus money will be used. Video by AP
By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 22, 2009

Nonprofit and public interest groups are scrambling to adapt to President Obama's stringent new ethics guidelines, which are so sweeping that they have blocked the ability of many sympathetic activists to get hired by the new administration.

Many of the groups are rushing to terminate or curtail their lobbying activities as a result of the rules, which bar new officials from making policy on any matter involving their former employer or clients for a period of two years or from working at an agency they lobbied within the past two years. Congressional records show that more than 700 lobbyists or lobbying groups have filed "de-registration" papers with the House and Senate since Obama took office, including scores of charities and other nonprofits.

The ethics guidelines were one of Obama's foremost campaign promises, aimed at "changing the culture of Washington" by limiting the influence of well-connected corporate and industry lobbyists. "We have set up the highest standard ever for lobbyists not working in the administration," Obama said in February.

But the standards he has put in place are so broad that all lobbyists -- including those working for charities and public interest groups -- are prohibited from working in the administration unless they are granted an exception. Many of the groups and their representatives feel particularly stung because they registered as lobbyists even when it was not required, either as a demonstration of their influence or to err on the side of caution in complying with transparency rules, according to lobbying experts. Some contend that they should not be punished now for being overly vigilant.

Human Rights Watch, for example, filed documents seeking to retroactively terminate its lobbying registration for the past two years, arguing that it never did enough lobbying to warrant registration in the first place.

The group's Washington advocacy director, Tom Malinowski, has been told by Obama aides that he could not work in the administration without a waiver because he was registered as a lobbyist on Capitol Hill, according to those familiar with his situation. Malinowski, a prominent expert on genocide and international human rights law, declined to comment on the issue.

"These are not the people they were trying to get at," said Stephen Rickard, Washington director of the Open Society Institute, who is pressing for changes in the administration's lobbying policies. "They were not trying to say that if you were lobbying to stop the genocide in Darfur, you're not going to be able to work for us. . . . If you're in nonprofit advocacy, there is a very good chance you want to work for Barack Obama. People don't want to be banned from that."

Rickard and other nonprofit experts say that many employees who registered as lobbyists out of an abundance of caution are moving to drop their registrations, while others are asking for transfers to positions that do not require them to register. The moves are being made in the hope that, two years from now, they will be eligible for employment in the Obama administration.

Kenneth A. Gross, a lobbying law expert at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, said the rules have "demonized lobbyists, even in the public interest sector."

"The breadth of the policy definitely excludes people who they probably weren't intending to exclude," Gross said. "It's very hard to do this sort of thing with a scalpel, and there's always going to be a lot of collateral damage when you use a hammer."

One example is the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest, which no longer lives up to its name. The group filed papers terminating its registration as a lobbying group one day after Obama issued the new ethics guidelines in January.

"It was not a significant part of what we were doing anyway, and we've been thinking about this for some time," said Larry Ottinger, the group's president, referring to direct lobbying activities. "But certainly the new rules played a factor in moving ahead."

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