Limits on Lobbyists as Hosts?

Washington – Tough new limits proposed on the way special interests could court executive branch officials have prompted a fierce counterattack from lobbyists who fear they will end a cherished Washington ritual: hosting federal workers at events like conferences, cocktail parties, galas and movie screenings.

Filmmakers and farmers, gun makers and real estate agents, and people in dozens of other industries say the rules under consideration by the Obama administration would choke off their ability to have a mutually beneficial dialogue with government officials. As a result, they say, public policy would be made in a vacuum, and federal rules would be more unrealistic and unworkable.

The proposal would extend restrictions now on political appointees to more than two million government workers. Federal employees could no longer accept “gifts of free attendance” at the many seminars, receptions and other social gatherings held by registered lobbyists and lobbying organizations as a matter of course in Washington.

In issuing the proposal under instructions from President Obama, the Office of Government Ethics said lobbyists often used such events to curry favor with federal employees.

The ethics office, which is now weighing the response to the proposal it made last September, said lobbyists had used these gatherings not only to discuss business with federal employees, but also to “foster a social bond that may be of greater use in the long run.”

The problem, it said, is “not the brazen quid pro quo, but rather the cultivation of familiarity and access that a lobbyist may use in the future to obtain a more sympathetic hearing for clients.”

The American League of Lobbyists, a trade group, denounced the proposal as excessive, and leaders of other groups branded it as demeaning and dismissive of the role that industry experts can play in formulating sound public policy.

The Motion Picture Association of America, the trade group for major Hollywood studios, strenuously objected to a suggestion by the ethics office that movie screenings were social events where lobbyists built good will, thus enhancing their influence with federal employees.

The association said that movie screenings at its headquarters two blocks from the White House “are not purely social events akin to sporting events or theatrical and musical events, but rather serve as educational opportunities,” allowing federal employees to learn about moviemaking techniques and “challenges facing the industry.”

Ronald L. Phipps, former president of the National Association of Realtors, said the restrictions would “perpetuate the problem of the Beltway bubble,” isolating regulators from the industries they regulate.

The USA Rice Federation, the lobby for rice growers, called the proposal insulting. The administration, it said, appears to view lobbyists as predators and federal employees as “weak, unprincipled victims.”

Under current rules, federal employees can accept free invitations to certain “widely attended gatherings,” and they often do so. Under the proposal, they could no longer accept such “gifts” from registered lobbyists and lobbying organizations.

Administration officials are still reviewing the comments, and it is unclear when a final decision may be made on whether to impose the new rules. But the Obama administration defended the proposal as a way to curb the influence of special interests, just as Mr. Obama did in 2010 when he told federal officials not to appoint registered lobbyists to advisory committees, boards and commissions.

Special interests can drown out the voices of ordinary Americans by deploying “lobbyists who have special access that is not available to all citizens,” Mr. Obama said then.

Mr. Obama promised to run the most ethical and transparent administration in history. While berating lobbyists in public, the administration has worked with them in private. White House officials have often met with lobbyists at coffee shops near the White House, so the meetings do not show up in White House visitor logs. Despite a pledge not to take money from registered federal lobbyists, Mr. Obama has relied on people active in the lobbying industry to raise millions of dollars for his re-election bid.

The proposed rules are aimed at lobbyists who work for trade associations. The new restrictions would not apply to institutions of higher education or to certain nonprofit groups like professional associations, scientific organizations and learned societies.

While these entities may lobby, the ethics office said, they pose less risk of “ethical harm,” and they can promote the professional development of government scientists and other federal employees. By contrast, it said, professional education is usually not the primary concern of trade associations.

This distinction infuriated lobbyists for trade associations.

Groups like the American Frozen Food Institute, the American Hospital Association and the Edison Electric Institute said they engaged in both lobbying and educational activities, with training as a major part of their mission.

However, watchdog groups like the Project on Government Oversight, the Government Accountability Project and Common Cause welcomed the proposal, saying it would help break up the cozy relationships between federal regulators and regulated industries.

Lobbyists said such relationships were essential at a time when the government regulates almost every corner of the economy and federal officials are continually promoting public-private partnerships to create jobs.

The Consumer Electronics Association, which holds a giant trade show each year, said the new restrictions would “drive a wedge between policy makers and job creators” and lead to a “drastic dumbing-down of government.”

The National Shooting Sports Foundation said the proposal would make it far more difficult to have “a constructive and mutually beneficial dialogue” between its members — manufacturers of firearms — and federal officials who regulate the industry.

Several members of Congress share the critics’ concerns. In a letter to the ethics office, nine House Democrats, including Representatives Chris Van Hollen of Maryland and James P. Moran of Virginia, said the rules could disrupt “the necessary flow of information between the public and private sectors” and adversely affect their constituents, including businesses and federal employees.

Civil servants say the rules could impose onerous new obligations on them. The rules suggest that federal employees check a searchable online database of lobbyists, maintained by Congress, to see if an invitation comes from a registered lobbyist or lobbying organization.