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Why can’t I advise officials on reducing trade barriers?

Regarding the Sept. 27 news article “Judge rules lobbyists can’t join panels”:

Confession: I am a “lobbyist.” I don’t drive a Porsche, and I have never contributed to a political campaign or paid for a lawmaker’s golf junket. After 30 years in Washington, I still confuse the various House and Senate buildings. Yet on the theory that my insight is somehow corrupting, the ruling bars me from a panel on which I served for 15 years: helping government officials understand complex and arcane aspects of my field, international trade.

I am a lobbyist because I represent U.S. companies seeking to reduce or eliminate foreign barriers impeding the export of their goods and services. Put another way, I help promote U.S. jobs. This requires interaction with the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR), which is headed by a member of the president’s Cabinet.

Other Cabinet-level departments, such as State, Commerce and Agriculture, also work to remove unfair trade barriers. But while most private-sector contact with USTR officials is considered lobbying, similar contact with other Cabinet-department officials at the assistant secretary level or lower is not. The reason is a mystery. But more broadly, why should working to reduce or eliminate foreign trade barriers even be considered a lobbying act?

The registration rules, moreover, rely on self-reporting, and many of my peers have decided that they are exempt from disclosing their activities. There are good reasons to encourage transparency in the lobbying, legal and consulting professions. So it makes no sense for politicians to demonize those who live up to the letter and spirit of the disclosure rules while turning a blind eye to those who don’t. Doing so encourages evasion, further undermining public trust in lobbying.

John McDermid, Washington

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