WHAT OTHERS SAY: Lobbying lobby squawks about limits on largesse

Tuesday, April 17, 2012 | 5:17 p.m. CDT

Pity the poor lobbyists. No matter how skilled and ingenious they become at the dark arts of influence peddling, reformers keep trying to protect the public interest and close their back channels to sweet deals — or at least force them to devise new tactics.

So it's not surprising to find the lobbying lobby in a dither over pending new rules that would restrict the kinds of freebies that career federal employees in the executive branch can accept from lobbyists. It is somewhat surprising — considering their profession, after all — that the lobby's argument is so weak.

In a statement, the American League of Lobbyists seemed particularly miffed that some groups and activities get a pass: educational and professional development activities organized by public and non-profit institutions of higher education, professional and scientific associations and other groups with tax-exempt status as charities.

Such groups would be able to offer career federal employees discounted registration fees for their events. But federal employees would have to pay full price to attend activities staged by trade associations for corporations and industries.

The lobby lobby pouted that corporate lobbyists also conduct "professional development and education activities."

Another concern of lobbyists are proposed limits on free tickets to "social invitations" and what the rules call "widely attended gatherings." These include such things as ceremonies, banquets and movie screenings organized by or on behalf of industries and corporations.

The Motion Picture Association of America, for example, disputed the proposal's characterization of movie screenings as "social events," at least the free movies it screens at its Washington headquarters — conveniently situated two blocks due north of the White House and one block south of K Street.

For some government employees who attend, the MPAA argued (with a straight face), "the substantive content of the movie may be relevant, while to others it might be the opportunity to see in action the latest movie making techniques or to put into context what they are learning regarding the challenges facing the industry.... Attendance at the event would be in the interest of the employee's agency and furthers the agency's programs and operations."

No, the MPAA comment letter was not signed by Eddie Haskell, as one might guess, but by a lawyer for a high-powered Washington public policy firm.

These proposed changes, developed by the independent Office of Government Ethics, merely build on earlier steps to restrain the influence of well-financed special interests on government operations.

The Ethics in Government Act of 1978 created the OGE in the wake of the Watergate crimes. Executive orders signed by President George H. W. Bush in 1990 and by President Barack Obama on the first full day of his presidency advanced the process, as did reforms of House and Senate rules after the Jack Abramoff scandals of the 2000s.

One of Mr. Obama's orders limits contacts between administration officials and lobbyists and restricts revolving-door employment between government and regulated industries. But the order has too many loopholes, and it only covers appointed executive branch employees, not career employees.

The new rules, which are yet to be finalized, would extend many of those rules to career service employees in the executive branch.

The lobbying industry would do well to quit crabbing about the rules. Instead it should do what it does so well: Figure out ways around them.

Copyright St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Reprinted with permission.

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