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Editorial: Gag on Lobbyists

President Barack Obama surely had the right idea when he ran a presidential campaign based, in part, on reining in the outsized influence of lobbyists on public policy.

Once elected, Obama continued his crusade, weaving a path between reformers cheering his blanket restrictions on former lobbyists working in the administration and insiders who wonder how much potential government talent is being cavalierly tossed aside.

It’s possible Obama has in fact made a small, but undeniable, dent in the systemic lobbyists’ culture that has enveloped the Capitol with a permanent fog of money and the access it buys.

And anyone knows that real change is only accomplished in Washington with stern and overarching measures.

But public policy is a complicated affair, and a one-dimensional conception of lobbyists rarely jibes with reality.

In our view, the administration has made two mistakes in its anti-lobbyist policies. First, by not distinguishing between lobbyists for corporate America and those who lobby for humanitarian groups and other nonprofits, the administration is needlessly shrinking the list of qualified people for senior-level jobs throughout the federal government.

And second, in a memo released last week, the administration reached into the outermost spectrum of efforts to regulate lobbyists, outlining a plan that effectively cuts off a lobbyist’s freedom of speech.

The March 20 memo, which was no doubt thoroughly vetted by both the administration and the Department of Justice, is designed to ensure the purity of decisions made about how money from the $787 billion stimulus package will be spent.

Lobbyists wishing to make pitches about funding a particular project using that stimulus money can only make their views known if they put them in writing.

Indeed, if an appointment is scheduled for a personal visit or even a telephone conversation, the federal bureaucrat involved must “inquire— whether a lobbyist will be present. “If so,— the directive reads, “the lobbyist may not attend or participate in the telephonic or in-person contact, but may submit a communication in writing.—

The administration views this restriction as a legitimate extension of other limitations the law quite legally places on lobbyists — like the public registration required under the Lobbying Disclosure Act. And there’s a long line of court cases upholding the right to put reasonable restrictions on commercial speech. (And we have to suppose a good lawyer could make the case that since lobbyists represent commercial interests, their speech is also commercial.)

Those explanations probably won’t mean much to American League of Lobbyists President David Wenhold, who told Roll Call reporter Anna Palmer that the new directive “smacks of segregation, discrimination, and I honestly feel it is unconstitutional.—

How much protection does the First Amendment’s right to petition the government afford Washington’s most pummeled class? It would be nice for some enterprising lobbyist to file suit against this “discrimination— and let us all find out.

In the meantime, we see no need to cut off lobbyists’ face-to-face and telephone access to the administration.

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