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Lobbyists sidestep new Obama restrictions

Alan Fram
AP Writer

Washington — Lobbyist Elizabeth Moeller knew Energy Department officials wouldn’t let her press them for an economic stimulus project for a California company hoping to turn algae into energy.

So she did the next best thing: After a lot of coaching, she sent the client.

“I’ve told them to stay really focused on the substance of what they’re doing,” including touting the jobs their projects could create, said Moeller.

Her tactic is one of several being used to sidestep the Obama administration’s new restrictions on registered lobbyists trying to sway federal agencies to award their clients money from the $787 billion economic stimulus program. Other popular workarounds: Sending colleagues who are not registered lobbyists to pitch federal officials, and getting help from allies on Capitol Hill.

As lobbyists adapt, a look at summaries of lobbyist contacts that federal agencies are posting online shows the rules are being applied inconsistently and departments are reporting just a few such communications.

Lobbyists complain many bureaucrats are overzealously enforcing the curbs.

The White House says if lobbyists are being restrained, that’s just what they had in mind.

“That is a good thing, not a bad thing,” Norm Eisen, the White House counsel who has handled the restrictions, said of the few interactions with lobbyists reported so far.

In March, President Barack Obama barred lobbyists from talking to administration officials about specific stimulus projects, while permitting general conversations about the measure. He ordered agencies to quickly post online written statements lobbyists submit and summaries of any encounters with them on the economic package.

As of this week, in a town with thousands of registered lobbyists, the Army Corps of Engineers listed 18 stimulus contacts from lobbyists. The Health and Human Services Department has posted seven, Interior two, Transportation one. NASA lists only a March e-mail from a lobbyist for a union for its scientists and engineers, but reports no contacts from any of its corporate contractors.

Departments not posting any lobbying contacts include Defense, Homeland Security and Housing and Urban Development. Some agencies, like the National Science Foundation, say their systems for posting reports are not yet ready while others, like Homeland Security, say they’ve not been contacted by lobbyists since the rules took effect.

Kenneth Gross, a lawyer and lobbying law expert, said federal officials are reluctant to meet with lobbyists on any subject, not just stimulus. Had Obama issued no restrictions, Gross said, hundreds would have lobbied agencies on the economic package by now.

“There’s been a chilling effect beyond the letter of the rule,” he said.

Eisen attributes the paucity of lobbying contacts on agency Web sites to the stimulus still being in its early stages and to agency meetings attended by mayors or corporate executives.

“The client is figuring out in many cases they are as capable, or even more capable, of conveying their message” than a lobbyist, Eisen said. “We think that’s a healthy rebalancing.”

The main White House Web site has no listings for contacts from lobbyists, though one of its branches — the Office of Management and Budget — lists one.

Eisen said Obama applied his restrictions to agencies, not the White House itself, because agencies are where decisions about stimulus projects are made. He said the White House was voluntarily complying anyway, citing blogs he has posted describing meetings he has had with lobbyists objecting to the new rules.

Howard Marlowe, who lobbies for counties and small towns, said he seldom sends clients to meet federal officials because he worries they’ll be confused. He’s dubious about submitting written statements because he has no way to know what happens to them.

“Talking does have its value,” he said. “We at least like to get the tone of their voice, if not the look in their eye.”

Several lobbyists said they are turning to Congress, which lobbyist Craig Engle said “still remains open to a free and fresh exchange of information.”

Others cited instances of non-lobbyists visiting agency officials, a trend Gross said is prompting some to rescind their lobbying registrations. But that is difficult to measure — Senate Office of Public Records data show 1,526 lobbyists terminated relationships with clients in the first quarter of this year, 270 more than did so during the same period in 2008, but it is impossible to tell why.

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