New policy on lobbyists could spur shake-up for advisory panel

This story was updated at 1:15 p.m. EST.

A sweeping new White House policy aimed at ousting special interests from federal advisory panels might sweep registered lobbyists off some U.S. EPA advisory panels.

The policy could affect more than 20 EPA committees, which include representatives of environmental groups, industry and trade associations, and public health and academic institutions. The committees offer advice on issues ranging from air pollution and drinking water to children's health and environmental justice.

It remains unclear exactly how the White House directive will apply to EPA and which committees will be affected, but many of the registered lobbyists on agency boards may see their memberships terminated once their current appointments end.

"EPA of course intends to implement President Obama's Executive Order 13490 to limit the influence of federally registered lobbyists in his administration," an agency spokesman said. "We are updating our current policy and we anticipate releasing this new guidance in the coming weeks."


The agency failed to respond to inquiries about which committees would be affected.

The initiative is not expected to immediately require lobbyists to step down from their posts. The White House advised agencies to not reappoint anyone who is registered as a lobbyist when their current appointments expire.

Senate rules define a lobbyist as anyone paid to advocate on behalf of a client to lawmakers, certain administration officials or their aides if the person makes more than one total lobbying contact and the efforts make up 20 percent or more of his or her work time during any three-month period. Lobbying reports are filed four times a year and cover three-month periods.

While the vast majority of EPA's advisers are not registered lobbyists and many panels are not likely to be affected, EPA's clean air and pesticide programs are among those that could see the effects of the new policy.

On EPA's Clean Air Act Advisory Committee, seven of 41 members were registered lobbyists, according to the most recent lobbying reports. Others, who were registered lobbyists within the past several years, may also be affected by the new policy. The committee offers advice and counsel to EPA on a variety of air quality issues.

"I would think it would cause quite a shake-up on the Clean Air Act Advisory Committee," said Frank O'Donnell, president of the advocacy group Clean Air Watch, because several of the committee's members are registered lobbyists.

"This seems to be an unprecedented attempt to put some restrictions on the influence of lobbyists in D.C., and it's long overdue," O'Donnell said.

Some members of the committee criticized the policy, which they say will remove some air experts from both environmental and industry organizations.

"I generally find that the air pollution experts with the most knowledge and arguably the most expertise have lobbied Congress, and it doesn't seem to have interfered, at least that we can tell, with their participation," said Bill Becker, a member of the committee and executive director of the National Association of Clean Air Agencies. He is not a registered lobbyist.

"This was probably a broader policy guidance that was directed at many other agencies," Becker said. "I don't think they've had terrible problems at EPA."

Jeff Holmstead, a member of the committee and a registered lobbyist, agreed. "You're going to be completely undermining the process of advisory boards in many cases because, even though I think the administration has tried to make some political hay out of attacking lobbyists, most lobbyists are people who are just experts in a certain field." Holmstead, who served as EPA's clean air chief during the George W. Bush administration, is now an industry attorney at Bracewell & Giuliani. But Susan Kegley, a senior scientist at the Pesticide Action Network, who is a member of EPA's Pesticide Program Dialogue Committee, applauded the new initiative.

"Lobbyists bring with them the advantage of being able to do behind-closed-door discussions, and many times, they don't have much to say in public meetings," said Kegley, who is not a registered lobbyist. "You have to wonder, have they already worked this out behind closed doors?"

The agency's Pesticide Program Dialogue Committee has 45 members; up to seven people in the group could be affected by the new recommendations, mostly from industry groups but also including environmentalists. They meet up to three times a year to discuss pesticide regulatory, policy and program implementation issues such as registration review, spray drift, non-animal testing, antimicrobial pesticides and endangered species.

Kegley said in theory the policy is a good idea, but she does not believe the guidelines are likely to have a significant impact on the committee's work, because "lobbyists would still be meeting with representatives."

Mixed reviews

Keeping advisory boards free of lobbyists builds off the administration's expressed commitment to limiting the influence of special interests in Washington, White House special counsel Norm Eisen wrote when releasing the policy in September. Shortly after his inauguration, President Obama issued an executive order prohibiting federal appointees from handling any issues that they lobbied on within the past two years.

Mary Boyle, a spokeswoman for Washington-based nonprofit Common Cause, welcomed the new initiative. "In many cases, lobbyists who are on these boards have basically a paid point of view, and we see this as an opportunity to bring in new opportunities, new points of view, new expertise," she said.

Other observers say this latest effort will do little to curb K Street's influence and could expel some of the government's most knowledgeable experts.

"I think that it's done for rhetorical flourish and electoral politics, not for substantive participation because the monied interests can always afford to bring power to participate," said Paul Billings, vice president of national policy and advocacy at the American Lung Association and a registered lobbyist.

Norm Ornstein, an expert on Congress with the American Enterprise Institute said there is good reason to try to change the ways of business and the tone in Washington. "There has been a lot of logrolling and back-scratching that's gone on, and there's so much money floating around," he said.

Still, Ornstein said he expects the overhaul will ultimately have little effect on how lobbyists influence agencies. "You're probably going to end up with other people who have a similar set of interests being appointed to the panels," he said.

Rena Steinzor, president of the Center for Progressive Reform, said the policy will have a disproportionate impact on environmental and public interest groups.

"It is in theory a good idea, but as a practical matter, it's going to have a very bad impact on public-interest groups, because the number of industry people in this town who work on all these issues is so much larger than the number of public-interest representatives," Steinzor said.

Steinzor said industry groups have a wealth of non-lobbyist staff to send to advisory committees, whereas public-interest groups have fewer people and less flexibility.

"Industry groups can just take them off of the registration and send them to advisory groups without sacrificing anything," she said.

Having lobbyists on advisory committees is not problematic if there is a balanced set of interests represented among committee members, Georgetown University government professor Clyde Wilcox said.

"The people who lobby are not evil," Wilcox said. "They're often people who are lobbying for a cause. They care about an issue. They've worked on it for a long time." Advisory committees do not tend to draw "hired gun" lobbyists but those who have worked consistently with one company or interest group, he said.

Reporter Anne C. Mulkern contributed.