President Barack Obama has implemented a series of policies to reduce the influence of special interest in Washington. Ironically, it will likely have a greater negative impact on government than on the practice of public affairs.
His first step was to announce strict hiring rules to prevent registered lobbyists from serving on his staff. Many in DC criticized that decision because it kept qualified people from joining the ad-ministration. Some of the strongest criticism came from liberal interest groups once they realized that these restrictions applied to all registered lobbyists - not just the ones working for oil companies.
Then he issued a directive preventing registered lobbyists from meeting with federal agencies to discuss economic stimulus projects. Obama said the move would "help ensure that lobbyists don't stand in the way of our recovery." Clearly the White House did not anticipate the backlash. Opposition to the policy came from all over, including the ACLU and a prominent political reform group.
The policy diminished the give and take needed to determine if projects will boost the economy. Eventually the policy was modified to permit meetings until grant application deadlines passed.
Recently the White House banned registered lobbyists from serving on federal advisory panels. Trade panels, in particular, are designed to ensure that US trade policies reflect both public- and private-sector interests. Critics of the proposal say that trade negotiators will be severely hampered if experts from the private sector (who also happen to serve as lobbyists) are prevented from serving on advisory bodies.
For public affairs pros, lobbying restrictions so far have been more insulting than injurious. Other than the matters listed above, lobbyists haven't been constrained from discussing policy issues with government officials. And no one is talking about depriving lobbyists of their right to meet with congresspeople.
Most advocacy campaigns also have a grassroots element that is at least as important as direct lobbying. Integrated efforts involving outreach to news media, special events, e-mail- and letter-writing initiatives, and other strategies are commonplace. The idea is to build support for your cause, not to twist arms or buy influence.
On the other hand, in an effort to curtail lobbying, the government has reduced its access to thousands - representing companies, unions, nonprofits, and others - who understand policy issues and processes. In an economic crisis, this self-inflicted wound seems counterproductive.Doug Pinkham is president of the Public Affairs Council.