- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 1, 2009

Saying President Obama has violated the Constitution, an unusual alliance of lobbyists, the American Civil Liberties Union and free-speech advocates on Tuesday demanded that the White House” href=”/themes/?Theme=The+White+House” >White House rescind new, unprecedented rules that bar lobbyists from calling or meeting with government employees when trying to tap stimulus money.

The ACLU, Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the American League of Lobbyists said it is unfair to single out lobbyists. They said the rules will only push non-lobbyists to make the contacts instead and may even hurt Mr. Obama’s goal of smarter spending decisions.

“Banning lobbyists - often people with experience and subject matter expertise navigating the intricacies of federal regulations and agency bureaucracy - actually may inhibit the speedy and responsible expenditure of funds on worthy projects and applicants,” the groups said.

In the rules developed two weeks ago, Mr. Obama said lobbyists could not be part of any meetings or phone calls to discuss specific projects with administration officials, but could submit their thoughts or comments in writing. Written communications would have to be posted to each agency’s recovery Web site established to help track how the $787 billion stimulus bill is spent.

The White House said it stands by the rules and their legality.

“The goal is full transparency. That’s entirely consistent with the First Amendment,” said White House spokesman Ben LaBolt. “Lobbyists can communicate about specific projects in writing and about policy issues orally. That fully respects freedom of speech - while at the same time ending closed-door lobbyist dealmaking in favor of sunlight.”

Knowing that bad press from a few bad projects could damage the entire recovery effort, Mr. Obama has taken pains to try to prevent bad spending decisions. He and Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr. have repeatedly warned states and local governments that they are all on the line in how the money is spent.

“Just because it may be legal it is not acceptable,” Mr. Biden warned state officials last month, telling them that swimming pools, golf courses and the like were not going to be allowed.

Mr. Obama’s March 20 memo to federal department and agency heads put details on those restrictions. The rules include the ban on face-to-face or phone conversations about specific projects, and the rules also say even face-to-face general policy discussions must be documented and posted to agencies’ Web sites.

But the free-speech advocates and lobbyists said singling out registered lobbyists didn’t make sense since corporate titans, members of Congress and others can have far more influence than lobbyists.

“Banning lobbyists from engaging in oral communications, but not bank vice presidents, corporate directors, and others who might seek to influence decision makers is unlikely to result in any real public benefit,” the groups said.

Rather than target lobbyists, they urged Mr. Obama to require disclosure of any contact someone makes regarding a specific project.

The groups said lobbying “is a constitutionally protected activity.”

Lobbyists have been under attack for years, and both the White House and Congress have tried to tighten rules on lobbyists’ access, the gifts they can give and what they have to disclose about their contacts.

Mr. Obama has targeted lobbyists from the start of his presidential campaign, and has gone so far as to restrict their access to top government jobs. He has issued waivers for some former lobbyists who he says are indispensable to his administration.

The government has already released billions of dollars in funding from the recovery bill, but data about how it’s being spent will start flowing in later in the year. Agencies begin reporting on grants and contracts on May 20, and recipients of federal money will begin reporting how they’re using the funds on July 15.

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