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Outside editorial: Cutting off competence by restricting lobbyists

Posted: Sunday, May 10, 2009

In the wake of the Jack Abramoff scandal, President Obama was right to err on the side of strictness in restricting lobbyists entering government, and we supported his rule. But we think it's worth asking whether the costs are outweighing the benefits.

The president was right to slow the revolving door so that those who serve in his administration cannot cash in quickly after leaving. The rules will prevent senior officials from lobbying the executive branch - not just the departments in which they served - for the remainder of Obama's service.

On the entry side of the revolving door, the administration barred those who had been registered lobbyists in the past two years from serving in departments that they had lobbied, even if their government work would not involve issues on which they had lobbied. This limitation had its silly aspects - you want health-care experts at the Department of Health and Human Services, for example, and some very good health-care experts have been registered lobbyists - but the administration built in some needed flexibility by allowing for waivers.

However, after an early waiver given to Raytheon Corp.'s chief in-house lobbyist, William Lynn, to become deputy defense secretary, the administration was bombarded with accusations of hypocrisy. The lesson that Team Obama took from this was not to use its waivers more wisely but to crack down on them - and to broaden the prohibition, in practice, to exclude lobbyist candidates from consideration even for jobs in departments or agencies that they hadn't lobbied. As a result, too many qualified candidates have been denied positions for which they are suited simply because of a lobbyist taint.

This approach could have the perverse consequence of driving lobbying underground and reducing the openness that the Obama administration says it wants to promote. The decision about whether to register as a lobbyist isn't always clear-cut; in the past, many people registered out of an abundance of caution. Now, some are saying privately that they will avoid registering if at all possible, shedding less sunlight on lobbying activities.

The Obama administration is also making a mistake by barring lobbyists from, well, lobbying it in some circumstances. The administration's rules on distributing stimulus funds bar registered lobbyists from telephoning or meeting with government officials about specific projects; they can make contact only in writing, with documents to be posted on the government's Web site. We understand the good-government impetus here. But why distinguish between lobbyists and corporate executives or local government officials seeking the funds, who have the biggest interests at stake? The rules are up for review soon. They should be rethought.



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