Lobbyists Booted from Advisory Panels

Josh Marshall points me to a story by WaPo’s Dan Eggen that sheds light on a little-known aspect of how Washington works:

lobbyists-demotivatorHundreds, if not thousands, of lobbyists are likely to be ejected from federal advisory panels as part of a little-noticed initiative by the Obama administration to curb K Street’s influence in Washington, according to White House officials and lobbying experts.

The new policy — issued with little fanfare this fall by the White House ethics counsel — may turn out to be the most far-reaching lobbying rule change so far from President Obama, who also has sought to restrict the ability of lobbyists to get jobs in his administration and to negotiate over stimulus contracts.

The initiative is aimed at a system of advisory committees so vast that federal officials don’t have exact numbers for its size; the most recent estimates tally nearly 1,000 panels with total membership exceeding 60,000 people.

Under the policy, which is being phased in over the coming months, none of the more than 13,000 lobbyists in Washington would be able to hold seats on the committees, which advise agencies on trade rules, troop levels, environmental regulations, consumer protections and thousands of other government policies.

My initial reaction is 1) Whoa! We’ve got so many people in these committees that we can’t even track their numbers?  and 2) Such a substantive change ought require congressional action, not the whim of a president.

On the last point, it turns out, “Administration lawyers determined that they couldn’t ban lobbyists from advisory committees directly because most of the panels are overseen by individual agencies rather than the White House; so Eisen encouraged — rather than ordered — the prohibition. Nonetheless, administration officials said, most Cabinet secretaries have implemented the recommendation, usually by barring renewals or new appointments for lobbyists.”  Hmm.

At any rate, the unintended consequences may be the real story:

But lobbyists and many of the businesses they represent say K Street is being unfairly demonized by a White House intent on scoring political points with scandal-weary voters. They warn that the latest policy will severely handicap federal regulators, who rely heavily on advisory boards for technical advice and to serve as liaisons between government and industry.

“It’s taken me years to learn what the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade is,” said Robert Vastine, a lobbyist for the Coalition of Service Industries who also serves as chairman of a trade advisory board. “It’s a whole different and specialized world. It is not easily obtained knowledge, and they are crippling themselves terribly by ruling out all registered lobbyists.”

Vastine is deeply familiar with the system because he helped create it as a top Senate Republican staffer during the early 1970s, when Congress approved the Federal Advisory Committee Act. The result, as Vastine puts it, is a “bureaucratic labyrinth” that has expanded to include virtually every aspect of the sprawling federal government, from the 179-member National Petroleum Council, which closely advises the Department of Energy, to the influential Defense Policy Board, which wielded enormous clout in the decision to go to war in Iraq.

Now, learning what GATT is should take, oh, 2 minutes.  The last 30 seconds of which would tell you that it was replaced by the World Trade Organization years ago.

But Vastine’s larger point has merit: Lobbyists can have legitimate expertise and insights into the big picture unavailable to career bureaucrats, who generally see only parts of the system.  DougJ sees this loss as a feature, not a bug.  And in many ways, it is.  Lobbyists have a bad name for a reason.  They’re in the business of rent-seeking, not providing honest expertise.  And we don’t want regulators to have overly cozy relationships with the people they regulate, since the public interest and that of the firms aren’t necessarily the same.  But banning 60,000 people from advising the government seems like overkill squared.

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James Joyner
About James Joyner
James Joyner is Professor and Department Head of Security Studies at Marine Corps University's Command and Staff College. He's a former Army officer and Desert Storm veteran. Views expressed here are his own. Follow James on Twitter @DrJJoyner.


  1. General Winfield Stuck says:

    And we don’t want regulators to have overly cozy relationships with the people they regulate, since the public interest and that of the firms aren’t necessarily the same.

    That has to be the biggest understatement of the year. But I would say it another way, we don’t want foxes guarding the henhouse. The only thing squared is how this epic conflict of interest came to be in the first place. It is rotten at first glance, and completely thereafter.

  2. Bill H says:

    Why do I find this a bit hypocritical? Oh, maybe because of who his Secretary of the Treasury and Chief Economic Advisor are.

  3. Ben says:

    Lobbyists have a bad name for a reason. They’re in the business of rent-seeking, not providing honest expertise. And we don’t want regulators to have overly cozy relationships with the people they regulate, since the public interest and that of the firms aren’t necessarily the same.

    I think what you meant to say is that lobbyists (which really means corporations) don’t give two lumps on a rat’s ass about what is good for the country, and are directly opposed to anything that is good for consumers.

  4. steve says:

    Summers and Geithner were lobbyists?


  5. Sam says:

    Don’t forget, there are many more lobbyists than just from commercial groups. NGOs from the Human Rights Campaign to the Nature Conservancy to Consumers Union have lobbyists.