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Proposed ban on lobbyist gifts causes firestorm, review extended

A rule proposed by the Obama Administration to limit the types of gifts federal employees can receive from lobbyists — including free trade show admittance and paid travel and hotel expenses — has had its review-period extended for 30 additional days.

The extension comes after a particularly vitriolic 60-day comment session on the rule that provoked the ire of dozens of trade and lobbyist groups. In an Op-Ed about the issue written to The Hill, Gary Shapiro, the president of the Consumer Electronics Association, said the regulations amount to “criminalizing efforts by government officials — and especially Executive Branch employees — to learn about business trends.” Politico put the clash succinctly, leading an article: “President Barack Obama isn’t finished with K Street.”

The Office of Government Ethics (OGE) has made the new deadline for comments about the rule Dec. 14 — after which the office will proceed with making final determinations. Comments received thus far by leading lobbyist and trade organizations as well as by individuals have been posted to the OGE website and are available for view by the public.

Unhappiness with the rule has centered on it whether it will prevent government officials from learning more about a particular industry or business organization. The Washington Times described it preventing “a representative from the Department of Transportation from attending the Auto Show in Detroit, for example, or a Federal Communications Commission employee from going to the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.”

Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, a good government group that supports the bill, says that assessment is not accurate. “In no way does this prevent members of congress and staffers and others to have communications with trade associations and others,” he said. He says that trade groups would have to charge admittance fees but that federal employees would still be free to attend.

Lobbying groups, though, say concern over gift-giving and comped trade show passes will affect more transactions than paid hotel rooms. They say programs, seminars and other events in which industry experts instruct government officials may become impractical and need to be overhauled.

A precautionary note on a prominent K-Street law firm‘s website describes how the rule might change lobbying culture:

No longer would a federal employee of any kind be able to accept a $15 lunch from a registered lobbyist or go to a [widely-attended gathering] put on (in whole or in part) by a registered lobbying organization. Nor would career executive branch employees any longer be able to accept social invitations from registered lobbyists or lobbying organizations, or enjoy meals or entertainment provided overseas by such individuals or entities.

A representative from another firm was recently quoted in The Hill outlining how government employees day-to-day lives might be jostled. “If you’re a rank-and-file member of the executive branch, and you’re attending a corporate event … you can’t have cheese,” he said. Groups opposed to the law say it will turn casual interactions into potential infractions.

Public Citizen — along with a group of public watchdog organizations that includes the Campaign Legal Center, Common Cause, Democracy 21 and U.S. PIRG — have argued for the rule and against maintaining that coziness between the executive branch and the lobbying industry. In a press release, the groups say current regulations have “allowed people with business pending before an agency from offering free gifts of food, entertainment and travel to agency employees.”

The OGE says the rule is needed to put a stop to “attendance at events, particularly social events, where the nexus to the government’s interest was attenuated.”

Industry groups are also outraged that the regulation makes exclusions for certain types of groups from the regulation, including non-profits, the news media and higher education institutions.

Non-profits in particular have come under the spotlight for being used as funnels for outside organizations to pay for gifts. A recent report found that non-profit spending on traveling junkets has spiked.

Current rules for lobbyist gifts break into two key categories depending on how far from Washington, DC the gift-giving occurs.

Government employees can receive individual gifts from lobbyists or lobbying organizations worth less than $20 up to a maximum of $50 per calendar year. The rule would set that limit to zero dollars.

If an employee is traveling more than 30 miles outside the D.C. area, they are allowed to accept gifts to attend “widely-attended gatherings” (WAGs) sponsored by lobbyist and trade associations. Gifts to attend those events also frequently include paying for travel expenses, including airfare, hotel accommodations and more. The rule would severely limit that practice.

The issue of lobbyist gifts has come up repeatedly of late as notorious lobbyist Jack Abramoff has taken his case to the public that the lobbying industry is in need of reform. Abramoff served more than three years in a Federal prison after being convicted of crimes made during his tenure as a sought-after lobbyist on Capitol Hill.

A recent special in CBS aired Abramoff’s regulatory proposals. Many of the practices of which he formerly partook would be curbed by the rule.

Abramoff would provide freebies and gifts – looking for favors for his clients in return. He’d lavish certain congressmen and senators with access to private jets and junkets to the world’s great golf destinations like St. Andrews in Scotland. Free meals at his own upscale Washington restaurant and access to the best tickets to all the area’s sporting events; including two skyboxes at Washington Redskins games.

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