Updated at 3:11 p.m. on Nov. 16.
As the Obama administration's complicated tug of war with lobbyists continues, Washington's professional persuaders are fighting back the best way they know how: with a lobbying campaign.
The leaders of more than a dozen advocacy groups, frustrated with the administration's multi-pronged restrictions on lobbyists, are meeting regularly at the Open Society Policy Center's Washington office to plot strategy. Possible actions include a push for congressional hearings, or even a demonstration on the Capitol steps.
The center, the advocacy arm of the George Soros-funded Open Society institute, has underwritten the hiring of consultant Bill Wasserman, president of M+R Strategic Services, to help it respond to the administration's lobbying rules. Leaders of the groups spearheading the effort, which also include the Center for Lobbying in the Public Interest and OMB Watch, will reach out to trade associations and unions to fortify their ranks.
Constraints on lobbyists actually reduce transparency, some argue, by encouraging lobbyists to "deregister."
"What we want to do is try and shift the focus from federally registered lobbyists to money and influence in the administration," said Lee Mason, director of nonprofit speech rights for OMB Watch. "That's where the focus ought to be."
Plenty of lobbyists already agree. Frustration has been growing on K Street ever since President Obama announced in January that most lobbyists would be barred from serving in the administration. The White House has also imposed limits on lobbyists seeking stimulus funds, and most recently took steps to bar registered lobbyists from serving on federal advisory panels.
This last move, announced in September, sparked angry letters last month not only from the American League of Lobbyists, but from the chairs of all 16 Industry Trade Advisory Committees, known as ITACs. The ITAC chairs warned that the move would "depopulate" the ITACs, which stand to lose some of their most experienced private-sector advisers, and make the committees less diverse and transparent.
At least one ITAC chair who is not a lobbyist told NationalJournal.com that he will step down because of the administration's new policy, and some trade advisers warned that other defections are in the works.
"I'm just not that interested in continuing to serve on a committee that's deprived of the best knowledge that's out there," said John Easton, who has chaired the committee on Energy and Energy Services for several years but now plans to step aside.
Easton, the vice president for international programs at the Edison Electric Institute, said that it's "certainly a lofty goal" to try to change the culture in Washington, but that limiting the role of unpaid advisers is the wrong way to go about it. Easton said the energy advisory committee he chairs is substantially under capacity, and that rounding up attendees for meetings is a perpetual challenge.
About 130 of the 335 ITAC advisers are registered lobbyists, and they have now been asked not to seek reappointment, according to International Trade Administration spokeswoman Mary Trupo. She noted that the Commerce Department and the U.S. Trade Representative are launching an aggressive recruitment drive to enlarge and diversify the ITACs.
"There will be challenges, but we see it as an opportunity," Trupo said. Administration officials, including Norm Eisen, the White House counsel on ethics and government reform, recently met with concerned lobbyists and ITAC chairs but announced that the administration is standing pat.
Many reform advocates have applauded the administration's lobbying restrictions and regard the blowback from K Street as almost laughable. Certainly the health care, energy and financial reform debates on Capitol Hill suggest that lobbyists and moneyed interests are, if anything, more powerful than ever.
But even some in the public interest community wonder whether the White House's lobbying edicts will really do much to change Washington. Constraints on lobbyists actually reduce transparency, some argue, by encouraging lobbyists to "deregister" and stop reporting their activities.
A joint study by the Center for Responsive Politics and OMB Watch recently found that lobbyists terminated their registrations in the first quarter of this year at "significantly higher levels than usual." Officials from the two organizations stressed that it's not clear why lobbyists are "deregistering," just that the total number of registrations is down.
Indeed, counting lobbyists in Washington is a notoriously slippery business. As National Journal reported recently, business is booming at Washington's top lobbying firms, and the Senate Office of Public Records actually reports an increase in lobbyists compared with a year ago. At the same time, the 2007 ethics and lobbying law imposed criminal penalties on lobbyists and more rigorously defined who qualifies as a lobbyist, possibly fueling "deregistrations."
Still, Obama's restraints on lobbyists risk causing considerable pain without getting at the root of the problem. A better approach, argue some experts, would be to require federal officials to report and disclose their meetings with all private-sector players, whether registered lobbyists or not.
Even better, say many reform advocates and lobbyists alike, would be to overhaul the campaign finance rules and publicly finance elections. Of course, lawmakers on Capitol Hill -- including the Democratic leaders Obama now desperately needs to help enact his agenda -- are fiercely wedded to the current political money system. That leaves Obama few options but to adopt arguably symbolic measures that tinker around the edges, and that, increasingly, leave lobbyists fuming.
CORRECTION: The group involved in the meetings mentioned in the second and third paragraphs is the Open Society Policy Center.