Hundreds, 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.
"Some folks have developed a comfortable Beltway perch sitting on these boards while at the same time working as lobbyists to influence the government," said White House ethics counsel Norm Eisen, who disclosed the policy in a September blog posting on the White House Web site. "That is just the kind of special interest access that the president objects to."
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.
According to the most recent estimates from the General Services Administration, 52 government agencies use 915 advisory committees organized under the law, with a total membership of more than 60,000. Other estimates put the figure at about 1,000 panels. Federal officials say they do not know how many panel members are lobbyists.
Most committee members receive no pay for their participation. They often are urged to take part by companies, trade groups or advocacy organizations that hope to sway government decisions to their advantage. While their operations vary, the panels tend to hold open meetings and issue reports and recommendations, and they often wield significant influence with policymakers because of their expertise in arcane subjects, from nuclear plant safety to wild burro management.
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.
Lobbyists up in arms
The reaction from the lobbying community has been swift and overwhelmingly negative. Some of the loudest criticism has come from the Industry Trade Advisory Committees (ITACs), a collection of more than a dozen panels that provide policy advice and technical assistance to the Commerce Department and the U.S. Trade Representative. The ITACs, whose roughly 400 members include at least 130 lobbyists, officials say, have taken the lead in attacking the White House policy as misguided and harmful to U.S. business interests; a letter to Obama from committee chairs last month included executives from Boeing, IBM, Harley-Davidson and International Paper.
"This action will severely undermine the utility of the advisory committee process," the letter read. ". . . The characteristics that make many Advisors valuable to the Administration [are] the same characteristics that are being used to artificially disqualify them from participation in the Committee system."
The panel on automotive equipment and capital goods, for example, stands to lose at least seven of its two dozen members, including lobbyists for the National Association of Manufacturers and the auto supplier Delphi, when the committee is reconstituted early next year. Critics note that the removals come as domestic automakers struggle to survive and the Obama administration attempts to jump-start trade talks with South Korea and other nations.
"At least for a year and maybe longer, I think we will completely neuter the voice of American business in these negotiations," said panel Chairman Brian T. Petty, senior vice president for government affairs at the International Association of Drilling Contractors. "You are clearing out some of the most competent people."
One lobbyist, William C. Lane, has served on that panel for 20 years while working as the chief Washington representative for Caterpillar, the equipment manufacturer.
"We tend to focus on issues of competitiveness and opening up markets, which is good for everybody," Lane said of the advisory committee. "It's good for communities; it's good for our suppliers."
Administration officials remain sanguine, saying the criticism is overblown and arguing that top corporate officers are free to sit on advisory panels as long as they aren't lobbyists. Eisen, in a response letter to the ITAC leaders last month, wrote that "arguments that only lobbyists can bring requisite experience to provide wise counsel . . . are unconvincing on their face."
"If the result of this new approach is that business owners join the conversation in D.C. about issues affecting them, that's fine," Eisen said in an interview. "It's healthy to move away from the professional advocates for the special interests and let some new voices be heard."
And though lobbyists are unhappy, some good-government advocates say the policy is sound.
"You may lose a lot of expertise, but these people are also paid to have a point of view; they have an agenda," said Mary Boyle, a vice president at Common Cause. "We support what the administration is doing to get deep-seated special interests out of the business of running our government, so this seems like a step in the right direction."