Saturday, May 30, 2009

White House quietly trying to shut people up?

Mark Tapscott at the Washington Examiner reports.

Michelle Malkin has also covered this matter.

The White House blog reads as follows:
Friday, May 29th, 2009 at 5:35 pm
Update on Recovery Act Lobbying Rules: New Limits on Special Interest Influence
Another update from Norm Eisen, special counsel to the president for ethics and government reform, in the spirit of transparency as always:

I am writing with an update on the President’s March 20, 2009 Memorandum on Ensuring Responsible Spending of Recovery Act Funds. Section 3 of the Memorandum required all oral communications between federally registered lobbyists and government officials concerning Recovery Act policy to be disclosed on the Internet; barred registered lobbyists from having oral communications with government officials about specific Recovery Act projects or applications and instead required those communications to be in writing; and also required those written communications to be posted on the Internet(this, and all other emphasis in this post, is added). That Memorandum instructed the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to review the initial 60 days of implementation of the stimulus lobbying restrictions, to evaluate the data, and to recommend modifications.

Following OMB’s review, the Administration has decided to make a number of changes to the rules that we think make them even tougher on special interests and more focused on merits-based decision making.

First, we will expand the restriction on oral communications to cover all persons, not just federally registered lobbyists. For the first time, we will reach contacts not only by registered lobbyists but also by unregistered ones, as well as anyone else exerting influence on the process. We concluded this was necessary under the unique circumstances of the stimulus program.

Second, we will focus the restriction on oral communications to target the scenario where concerns about merit-based decision-making are greatest –after competitive grant applications are submitted and before awards are made. Once such applications are on file, the competition should be strictly on the merits. To that end, comments (unless initiated by an agency official) must be in writing and will be posted on the Internet for every American to see.

Third, we will continue to require immediate internet disclosure of all other communications with registered lobbyists. If registered lobbyists have conversations or meetings before an application is filed, a form must be completed and posted to each agency’s website documenting the contact.

OMB will be consulting with agencies, outside experts and others about these principles and will publish detailed guidance, but we wanted to update interested parties on the outcome of the initial review. We consulted very broadly both within and outside of government (including as reflected in previous posts on the White House blog) and we are grateful to all those who participated in the process.

There are several alarming details in this post, but what most disturbed me was the barely reworded admission("restriction on oral communications") that the executive branch is attempting to restrict free speech and the right to petition government, both rights guaranteed by the First Amendment. Of course the White House can be expected to reply that the restrictions only apply to lobbyists and special interests, but the Constitution protects their rights to free speech and petition as much as it does anyone else's.*

Also, if the rules Eisen lists here aren't more specific in practice, they're basically worthless to the cause of transparency. The requirement to "post on the Internet" could be satisfied by a comment on the MySpace page of the lobbyist's 14-year old child.

Additionally, this and any other restriction on communication with government officials will inevitably handicap the average citizen more than the big K Street lobbying firm, which has armies of lawyers keeping track of new rules that apply to them.

Last thing - though transparency is usually preferable to secrecy, it says nothing at all about the wisdom or foolishness of any government act. It's far too easy to forget this.

*A brief thought on this matter - "lobbyists" and "special interests" are frequently misunderstood political bogeymen, just like "hedge fund managers", "big business", and to some extent "rednecks". Whether or not such people are inherently evil, it's in the politician's advantage to treat them as so because the majority of voters will never closely examine the bogeyman in question enough to know that the politician has misled them.

Lobbyists are good villains because they've apparently always got their hands out, ready to corrupt another otherwise virtuous government official. Who can't be sympathetic to the official when the situation is portrayed this way? But if you think one step further and ask why the lobbyist exists in the first place, the obvious answer is that government officials are extremely profligate with the revenues they receive in taxes, to say the least. More on this matter to come in the future.
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