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Update on Recovery Act Lobbying Rules: New Limits on Special Interest Influence

Another update from Norm Eisen, special counsel to the president for ethics and government reform, in the spirit of transparency as always:
I am writing with an update on the President’s March 20, 2009 Memorandum on Ensuring Responsible Spending of Recovery Act Funds. Section 3 of the Memorandum required all oral communications between federally registered lobbyists and government officials concerning Recovery Act policy to be disclosed on the Internet; barred registered lobbyists from having oral communications with government officials about specific Recovery Act projects or applications and instead required those communications to be in writing; and also required those written communications to be posted on the Internet.  That Memorandum instructed the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) to review the initial 60 days of implementation of the stimulus lobbying restrictions, to evaluate the data, and to recommend modifications.
Following OMB’s review, the Administration has decided to make a number of changes to the rules that we think make them even tougher on special interests and more focused on merits-based decision making.
First, we will expand the restriction on oral communications to cover all persons, not just federally registered lobbyists.  For the first time, we will reach contacts not only by registered lobbyists but also by unregistered ones, as well as anyone else exerting influence on the process.  We concluded this was necessary under the unique circumstances of the stimulus program.
Second, we will focus the restriction on oral communications to target the scenario where concerns about merit-based decision-making are greatest –after competitive grant applications are submitted and before awards are made.  Once such applications are on file, the competition should be strictly on the merits.  To that end, comments (unless initiated by an agency official) must be in writing and will be posted on the Internet for every American to see.
Third, we will continue to require immediate internet disclosure of all other communications with registered lobbyists.  If registered lobbyists have conversations or meetings before an application is filed, a form must be completed and posted to each agency’s website documenting the contact.
OMB will be consulting with agencies, outside experts and others about these principles and will publish detailed guidance, but we wanted to update interested parties on the outcome of the initial review.  We consulted very broadly both within and outside of government (including as reflected in previous posts on the White House blog) and we are grateful to all those who participated in the process.