From Politico, Obama order worries free speech groups

Free speech advocates from across the political spectrum are accusing President Barack Obama of impinging on First Amendment rights and are gearing up to take their case public.

At issue is an unprecedented directive that Obama— who has long railed against lobbyists as the personification of a corrupt Washington culture — issued last week barring officials charged with doling out stimulus funds from talking to registered lobbyists about specific projects or applicants for stimulus cash.

Under the directive, which began going into effect this week, agency officials are required to begin meetings about stimulus funding for projects by asking whether any party to the conversation is a lobbyist.

“If so, the lobbyist may not attend or participate in the telephonic or in-person contact, but may submit a communication in writing,” reads Obama’s memo, which requires the agencies to post lobbyists’ written communications online.

The rule is intended to prevent stimulus funds form being “distributed on the basis of factors other than the merits of proposed projects or in response to improper influence or pressure,” according to the memo.

Which sounds like a good idea, at first reading.  It would seem to cut down the possibilities for corruption.  But there is that thing called a slippery slope.  American League of Lobbyists President Dave Wenhold says,

...“And that is unconstitutional, because it takes a class of people and says that they are not worthy to petition the government,” he said, adding that his group will hold a Tuesday news conference to highlight the First Amendment impact of the rule. “It just goes too far,” he said, asserting “if anybody is paying attention, they should be wondering ‘is my group next?’ If they take the right to petition the government away from one class of people, who is going to be next?”

And then there’s the law of unintended consequences:

First amendment implications aside, the new lobbyist-muzzle rule is unprecedented and could have unintended consequences, said ethics and lobbying lawyer Larry Norton. A former Federal Election Commission general counsel, Norton predicted the rules will prompt some lobbyists to de-register, so they can personally lobby agencies for stimulus funds.

That can be done legally, Norton said, if the lobbyists shift their workloads so that they spend less than 20 percent of their time lobbying – the threshold at which lobbyists must register with Congress.

“I don’t imagine that’s what they intended,” he said of the Obama administration, adding “it’s hard for me to see that (the memo) really addresses the problem or that in execution it’s going to solve very much. It is going to create a lot of separate classes of advocates in this town.”

Link to the directive here.

The rule has a whiff of McCarthyism to it, and quarantining lobbyists (so they don’t contaminate the pure government officials?) just adds to it.  The idea that the government can engage in occupational profiling to decide who can petition it, as guaranteed by the First Amendment, is a bad one.  And since it will be so easy for lobbyists to get around, it will be worthless if the goal really is to limit lobbyists’ influence.  It goes well with the current atmosphere of scapegoating and witch hunting in Washington, though.

An empty gesture, in other words.  If the President is so committed to transparency in government, make all those meetings a matter of public record, and post them online.  Better yet, stop taking our money to redistribute it to favored constituents.

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