After months of criticism over allegations of suppressing free speech, the White House has quietly changed its lobbying restrictions on its stimulus spending. Suddenly, administration officials are now free to take calls and attend meetings with lobbyists, ending the Phoney War on petitioning the government. That may have less to do with stimulus than with another policy priority of the Obama White House:
In a significant change, the Obama administration will now allow lobbyists to meet and have telephonic discussions with government officials regarding economic recovery projects.
The lifting of the ban comes after K Street has cried foul for months and has challenged the White House on its restrictions. …
Now, the just-revised rules will allow government personnel to accept meetings and calls from federally registered lobbyists on the implementation of stimulus projects. The head of the Office of Management and Budget, Peter Orszag, issued a new guidance late Friday regarding the administration’s communications with registered lobbyists about economic recovery funds.
Lobbyists can make their cases — and agency officials can listen to them — at “widely attended gatherings.” Government officials have to ask whether the person they are talking to at such events is a federally registered lobbyist speaking on behalf of a client.
The previous restrictions were both unconstitutional and hypocritical. Americans have a right to petition their government, explicitly enumerated in the First Amendment. The White House has the right to set its own policies on transparency, which The Hill details in its article, but it cannot deny that basic right by executive fiat. The hypocrisy stems from the dozens of lobbyists Obama has appointed to his administration already, making this EO worse than a timewaster — it shut out those lobbyists without the necessary personal connections to get next to Obama.
Why change now? After all, this issue had all but disappeared from the political radar ever since the push for health-care reform ran into trouble. As it turns out, the Obama administration realizes that they can’t afford to alienate the lobbyists now (via Instapundit):
Stormy weather in Congress is threatening President Barack Obama’s health care overhaul, but some see a silver lining: the lobbyists are still mostly on board.
The drug industry, the American Medical Association, hospital groups and the insurance lobby are saying Congress must make major changes this year. Disagreements — chiefly between liberal and conservative Democrats — brought Congress to a standstill this week. But television ads paid for by drug companies and insurers continued to emphasize the benefits of a health care overhaul — not the groups’ objections to some of the proposals. …
The political infighting on Capitol Hill has strengthened the hand of the health care groups, since liberals have been thwarted so far in their attempts to win speedy passage of the legislation through the House and Senate.
Health-care groups for the most part want some kinds of reform, just not the Trojan horse for single-payer that the “public plan” would be. Obama needs to ensure that the lobbying community doesn’t revolt entirely against the idea of reform, or it could spell an end to any bill coming out of Congress this year. In order to escape the bitter infighting that now threatens to split his own party in Congress, Obama may hope to get even a modest restructuring of the health-care industry with Max Baucus’ co-ops instead of an expanded Medicare-Medicaid system that would drive private insurers from the scene. He won’t get that much if the lobbyists decide to play hardball and unite against the White House on the entire policy.
This has nothing to do with granting access on Porkulus, and everything to do with getting the lobbyist group ALL and the ACLU off the back of the White House.