| Thousands of lobbyists are being swept off federal advisory panels thanks to a policy initiated quietly by President Obama at the instigation of White House ethics counsel Norm Eisen. Eisen disclosed the policy on the White Houe blog last September, saying:
"Some folks have developed a comfortable Beltway perch sitting on these boards while at the same time working as lobbyists to influence the government"
The General Services Administration has estimated the number of advisory committees at 915 with over 60,000 members, but no one knows for sure. The committees no doubt seemed like a good idea back in the early 1970's when Congress followed the recommendations of Robert Vastine, a top Republican staffer at the time, and passed the Federal Advisory Committee Act apparently hoping to provide Congress, composed mostly of laymen, with guidance from professionals in dealing with the confusions of modern life. From simple beginnings the advisory committees have turned into what Vastine, now a lobbyist for the Coalition of Service Industries, frankly calls a "bureaucratic labyrinth" inter-twined with every aspect of federal government, including helping to write legislation and regulations or advising on the letting of government contracts.
|Needless to say, the K Street community of lobbyists has protested mightily, with the loudest complaints coming from the ITACs or Industry Trade Advisory Committees, whose 400 members include at least 130 lobbyists. The general point of their argument is that removing lobbyists from the advisory committees will "undermine the utility of the advisory committee process... the characteristics that make many Advisors valuable to the Administration (are) the same characteristics that... artificially disqualify them from participation..." (Quoted from a letter from committee chairs to POTUS).
Mr. Vastine explained, "It's taken me years to learn what the General Agreement on Tarriffs and Trade is." Brian T. Petty, senior vice-president for government affairs (they must have a stable of vice-presidents in this department) at the International Association of Drilling Contractors, commented,
"At least for a year and maybe longer... we will completely neuter the voice of American business... You are clearing out some of the most competent people."
The Obama Administration calls the criticism "overblown," pointing out that top corporate officers are free to sit on the advisory panels so long as they are not lobbyists, adding that "arguments that only lobbyists can bring requisite experience to provide wise counsel... are unconvincing on their face." Eisen himself claimed that "It's healthy to move away from the professional advocates for the special interests and let some new voices be heard."
Advocates for good government, like Mary Boyle, Vice-President at Common Cause, says,
"You may lose a lot of expertise, but these people are also paid to have a point of view; they have an agenda... We support what the Administration is doing to get deep-seated special interests out of the business of running our government..."
The new policy might turn out to be the most far-reaching lobbying rule change so far from an Administration that campaigned on restricting the power of special interest lobbyists. Looks like a home run to me.