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Lobbyists object to Obama proposal that would tighten rules for federal workers

Lobbyists are arguing against an Obama administration proposal that would tighten rules governing what executive branch employees may accept from companies and trade associations that try to influence government policy.

The rules would ban executive branch employees from accepting gifts of any value from a lobbyist or an organization that employs lobbyists. The rules also would end a policy that allows lawmakers and government workers to accept free admission to “widely attended gatherings” held by lobbyists or companies and trade associations that are registered to lobby.

Under the new rules, government employees would still be able to register for training courses using a government discount, but they could not accept free registration at conferences unless they had a speaking role.

The American League of Lobbyists issued a statement Monday saying that the regulations would result in the “dumbing-down of government” and would not serve the public interest.

“If it is not withdrawn, this rule will prevent government workers from having even casual social contact with registered lobbyists,” wrote Howard Marlowe, president of the lobbying group. “The Administration has offered no reports of even a single abuse of its current regulations to warrant the severe restrictions it has proposed on the mutual flow of information and expertise between lobbyists, their employers, and Federal workers.”

When it requested public comment on the proposed rules, the Office of Government Ethics noted that the “widely attended” exemption had become a large loophole.

“Some of the exceptions may have been used on occasion to permit gifts, such as attendance at certain events, where the nexus to the purpose of the exception is attenuated at best,” the agency wrote. “When such gifts are offered by persons who are paid to influence government action, the concerns obviously are magnified.”

Good-government groups have praised the proposed regulations.

“They are long overdue,” said Meredith McGehee of the Campaign Legal Center. “Lobbyists are indeed paid to influence government action — that’s their job — so it is appropriate to have some restrictions aimed at lobbyists.”

Other exemptions will be maintained, including those for gifts from journalists or friends and gifts in connection with some political work.

The rules stem from an executive order that President Obama issued on his first full day in office. The White House did not respond to a request for comment.

The comment period for the rules will end next month.

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