The Obama Presidency: White House Expands Limits on Stimulus Lobbying

At the Five Guys near Nationals Park, President Obama ordered a cheeseburger with jalapeños and hobnobbed with the lunchtime crowd.
At the Five Guys near Nationals Park, President Obama ordered a cheeseburger with jalapeños and hobnobbed with the lunchtime crowd. (By Brendan Smialowski -- Getty Images)

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Saturday, May 30, 2009

LOBBYING BAN

White House Broadens Communication Limit

The White House is bolstering its restrictions on lobbying for stimulus funds, expanding the ban on oral communications with administration officials to include not only federally registered lobbyists but also consultants and other individuals who seek to exert influence over the spending process.

The changes will ban oral communications between the administration and any individual trying to influence the federal agencies tasked with awarding money from the $787 billion economic recovery program. Communications must be in writing and will be posted on the Internet, according to a White House memorandum released Friday.

The administration's restriction targets the period after competitive grant applications are submitted and before awards are made, with the goal of ensuring that competition for stimulus funds is based on merit alone.

"It will, for the first time, break down the barrier, which everybody complains about, between registered lobbyists and non-registered lobbyists," said Norm Eisen, the White House ethics counsel, who wrote the memo. "You're going to be reaching not just the lobbyists but the influencers. It is a step forward in the president's commitment to pursue the public interest over the special interest."

Under the administration's previous rules, only federally registered lobbyists were banned from communicating with administration officials. Some companies sidestepped the restrictions by enlisting consultants, lawyers or other company officials who are not registered as lobbyists to try to pitch to officials.

"Our concern was: You're not going to let a lobbyist talk, but you're going to have the corporate vice president talk?" said Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, a watchdog group that worked with the White House to develop the new rules. "This changes that to apply the rules in a more even-handed fashion."

Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group, also applauded the expanded restrictions. David Arkush, director of the group's Congress Watch division, said the policy will "ensure that the massive infusion of government funds to stimulate the economy is spent openly, by the books and with the public's interest in mind."

-- Philip Rucker

Another Burger Run: President Obama zipped down to the Five Guys burger joint near Nationals Park yesterday -- just him, a couple of aides, a motorcade's worth of security, the traveling media pool, NBC News anchor Brian Williams and the NBC camera crew that just happened to be trailing him for a "day in the life" documentary about the president.

Obama, in shirtsleeves, shelled out at least $80 in cash, according to press-pool observers, to get food for his entourage and the crew -- including a burger with ketchup and fries for Williams, and a cheeseburger with jalapeño, lettuce, mustard and tomato for himself. He chit-chatted with fellow customers, got a group photo with the restaurant staff and took his order to go in two large paper bags. It's his second burger lunch in recent weeks -- Obama and Vice President Biden ventured earlier this month to Ray's Hell Burger in Arlington -- while Michelle Obama visited another Five Guys in D.C. earlier this year.

-- Amy Argetsinger

and Roxanne Roberts


© 2009 The Washington Post Company

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