September 09, 2011

White House Restrictions on Lobbyists Said to Harm Nonprofit Advocacy

The Obama administration's rules limiting the ability of lobbyists to get certain federal jobs have harmed nonprofit advocacy while doing little to curb the influence of special interests, according to a new report by the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest, an advocacy group.

"The restrictions have had a severe chilling effect on the voice of charities and social-welfare organizations and their constituents," says the report, which summarizes the results of a survey of 66 nonprofit advocates and 20 in-depth interviews with nonprofit leaders.

The White House rules bar registered lobbyists, including those for nonprofits, from getting political appointments to any agency that they contacted more than once during the previous two years.

They also restrict appointees from working on issues that they lobbied on during the previous two years and prevent lobbyists from serving on federal advisory boards and commissions.

“We are proud of the pledge we made and believe it is important to keep it, even if that means there are talented public advocates who can't work in the administration,” Eric Schultz, a White House spokesman, said in an e-mail.

But the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest, in Washington, has been working with a coalition of advocacy groups to attempt to change the rules. It argues that public-interest lobbyists should be treated differently than those seeking to help business interests.

Among the findings in its report:

• Nearly 80 percent of those surveyed called the administration's rules "harmful to the public interest." Respondents used words like "misguided," "intrusive," and "counterproductive."

• Forty-two percent said their organizations had "deregistered" people who had been registered as lobbyists, and 57 percent of those said they were influenced to do so by the administration's restrictions. (Federal law requires people to register if at least 20 percent of the activities they perform for a client of organizations are spent on lobbying.)  Data show that lobbyists are deregistering at a much higher rate than in the past, meaning the public is getting less information about lobbying activities than before, the report says.

• The rules have led some advocates to stop lobbying at their nonprofits or to leave altogether for two years so they can qualify for federal appointments—a practice known as "getting clean."

The report also said it worried that the rules have deprived the federal government of the expertise it could have received by hiring veteran public-interest leaders. At the same time, it said, the administration has hired numerous business insiders for important positions, despite the president's vows to "clean up Washington."