The White House issued new rules Friday broadening some of its restrictions on lobbying for projects in the economic stimulus package, but retreating on others.
All people will now be forbidden to have oral conversations with administration officials about some of the projects they are seeking from the $787 billion package. Under rules that President Barack Obama imposed in March in an effort to curtail lobbyists' influence, the prohibition on such conversations only applied to registered federal lobbyists.
But while the old ban against oral communications by lobbyists applied to much of the stimulus program, the new curbs only cover grants that are awarded competitively. There will be no restrictions on their conversations about the rest of the bill.
One White House official, who would only speak on condition of anonymity, said the new prohibition against conversations would apply to about $60 billion worth of spending.
"This is very good for the lobbying community," said Dave Wenhold, president of the American League of Lobbyists, which has been battling the rules. "It allows lobbyists and clients back into the room."
Even for competitive grants, lobbyists will now be allowed to speak to administration officials before project applications are submitted, and after they are awarded. Previously, the prohibition had no exceptions against conversations.
White House defends new restrictions
White House officials defended the new restrictions, saying they covered the parts of the stimulus package that are most competitive.
They said that in effect, the old lobbying ban had little or no effect on much of the stimulus package because much of its price tag is for money being automatically distributed as tax cuts or as benefit payments such as Social Security. Decisions for how much of the rest of the money is being spent are being made by state and local officials.
Norm Eisen, the White House ethics official who has overseen the restrictions, said the ban on oral conversations would still be in effect during the period when crucial decisions about awarding competitive grants would be made.
"We view this as a toughening of the rules," he said.
Expanding the prohibition to non-lobbyists was praised by open government groups. They have argued that preventing lobbyists from having such conversations did nothing to stop company executives, or local government officials, from lobbying for the same projects.
"It levels the playing field between wealthy corporations and nonprofit organizations as well as those who can afford hiring an insider lobbying firm and those who cannot," David Arkush, director of Public Citizen's Congress Watch, said in a written statement.
'Corporate bigwigs and major donors'
Melanie Sloan, executive director of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington, said the expanded prohibitions will "ensure that corporate bigwigs and major donors who do not register as lobbyists do not benefit from an inside track unavailable to those less politically influential."
As before, federal agencies are supposed to quickly post on their web sites summaries of all conversations officials have with others about stimulus projects, and all written communications they receive.
During the two months the current rules have been in effect, some lobbyists sidestepped the ban by sending colleagues who were not registered lobbyists to meet with agency officials. They also sometimes sent officials from the companies or communities seeking the stimulus funds.
Federal agencies have posted summaries of only several dozen meetings with lobbyists since the rules took effect.