FEDERAL AGENCIES

White House reversal ushers lobbyists back to advisory panels

Lobbyists ousted from federal advisory panels by the Obama administration could soon make a comeback.

In a policy reversal spurred by a lawsuit and published today, the White House is overhauling its 2010 policy that booted registered lobbyists from agency boards and commissions with the stated goal of reducing the "undue influence of special interests."

That means committees advising energy and environmental agencies soon could be repopulated by federally registered lobbyists. The new guidance allows those lobbyists who serve in a "representative capacity" -- meaning they are appointed to provide the views of a specific outside group -- to sit on advisory boards. Lobbyists are still barred from serving in an "individual capacity," where they would exercise their own individual best judgment.

At U.S. EPA, the new policy could usher lobbyists back to some of the more than 20 boards and committees that advise the agency on everything from air pollution and drinking water standards to farmers' interests.

One EPA panel likely to see a shakeup is the Clean Air Act Advisory Committee, whose members include an array of outside groups tasked with offering the agency advice about air pollution policies. Members include representatives from environmental groups, state governments, industries and other groups. When the restrictions were first announced in 2009, seven of the 41 members of the EPA panel were registered lobbyists (Greenwire, Dec. 4, 2009).

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Jeff Holmstead, former EPA air chief during the George W. Bush administration and a registered industry lobbyist, was among those who were barred from the committee after the ban was instituted. He recalled being told he was no longer welcome after the guidance was issued but said he'd welcome the chance to return to the panel if invited.

"I think this is a step back in the right direction," Holmstead said of the revised policy. "I think the original policy is kind of silly," he said, because it eliminated a lot of the "best-qualified people" from advising EPA on policy issues.

The new guidance doesn't allow registered lobbyists back on all federal advisory panels. They're still prohibited from serving on EPA's Science Advisory Board, for example, because it consists of special government employees and federal employees who are asked to offer their expertise in an "individual capacity."

Craig Holman, a government affairs lobbyist at the watchdog group Public Citizen, blasted the move by the administration.

"This is awful," he said of the new policy, calling it a retreat by the Obama administration from its ethics when it comes to lobbyists. Advisory boards will again become staffed by industry "hired guns" rather than experts, he said.

The new policy has the potential to broadly affect the membership of committees across the government.

The Interior Department is reviewing the guidance, said spokeswoman Emily Beyer. She declined to comment on the specific panels that will be affected. The agency had more than 100 federal advisory committees in 2011, according to the most recent data available from the General Services Administration.

The Energy Department didn't respond to requests for comment about which of its boards might see an influx of lobbyists. The agency had about two dozen advisory committees in 2011, according to GSA.

The administration's policy shift came amid a legal battle where registered lobbyists argued the ban impeded their First Amendment rights to petition the government by blocking them from joining industry trade advisory committees.

The U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia dismissed the complaint, but the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit reversed the decision in January, sending it back to the lower court for reconsideration.

Twitter: @rbravender | Email: rbravender@eenews.net

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