Saturday, March 21, 2009

Some Activists Barred From Government Work: Wash Post

Some Activists Barred From Government Work
Nonprofits and Public Interest Groups Are Hurrying to Meet Obama's Strict New Ethics Guidelines

By Dan Eggen
Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, March 22, 2009; A04

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."

But administration officials say the rules are an attempt to fulfill Obama's campaign promises to reform Washington, and are aimed primarily at preventing former corporate and industry lobbyists from using government positions to enrich their past clients. White House officials also argue that the rules have had little impact on appointments, which have proceeded at a faster pace than in the past three administrations. Out of more than 800 appointments so far, the White House says it has granted only three waivers for former lobbyists.

One of the waivers went to William J. Lynn III, a Defense Department appointee who worked as a lobbyist for Raytheon, a major military contractor. Two more were announced last week for "public interest" reasons: Cecilia Muñoz, a former executive at the National Council of La Raza who now serves as Obama's chief Hispanic issues adviser; and Jocelyn Frye, an adviser to the first lady who previously worked as general counsel for the National Partnership for Women and Families.

Norm Eisen, the president's chief ethics counsel, said in a White House blog posting March 10 that it is "important to have reasonable exceptions" to the lobbying rules, but he added that such waivers would be used "sparingly." White House officials declined to publicly comment for this article.

Nonprofit groups and ideological organizations spent more than $180 million on lobbying last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics. Although high by historic standards, the fees amounted to a small fraction of the $3.24 billion in total lobbying expenditures in Washington. Many nonprofit and ideological groups reported few or no lobbying expenses.

Perry Wasserman, managing director of 501(c) Strategies, which lobbies on behalf of nonprofit groups, said many public interest organizations registered as lobbyists even when they did not need to under the complicated requirements of the Lobbying Disclosure Act. He said many nonprofits are reexamining such decisions not only because of the new White House rules but also because of stricter reporting requirements.

"A lot of nonprofits wanted to show their members they were in Washington working on important public policy issues, or they wanted to demonstrate their commitment to transparency," said Wasserman, who has counted the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest among his clients. "We've always advised our clients to follow the law, but it certainly doesn't make sense to register if you don't have to."

One who has just terminated her registration is Ellen S. Miller, executive director of the Sunlight Foundation, which advocates for greater transparency in government, including lobbying. Miller said she pulled the registration not because of the new ethics rules, but because she had never ended up personally lobbying for her three-year-old group.

Miller also said she strongly supports Obama's new ethics rules and thinks that a limited waiver system will provide enough flexibility to make exceptions if necessary. "I think people understand when you're a lobbyist on behalf of a public interest as opposed to a corporate interest," she said. "The important thing is disclosure."

Database editor Sarah Cohen contributed to this report.

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