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May 29, 2009

Obama Strengthens Restrictions on Lobbying for Earmarks in the Stimulus Package

New Rule Requires that Applications for Competitive Spending Projects be Submitted Exclusively in Writing and That All Earmark Requests be Posted on Internet

WASHINGTON, D.C. – Public Citizen applauds the Obama Administration’s decision to require all requests for competitive spending grants from the stimulus package by non-governmental persons, including registered lobbyists, be made exclusively in writing and then posted on the Internet within three days.

Requests for non-competitive grants, such as those made to governmental agencies, may be made orally, but these requests must also be posted on the Internet. Until today’s executive order, the requirement that requests be submitted exclusively in writing applied only to registered lobbyists.

“This policy is designed to ensure that the massive infusion of government funds to stimulate the economy is spent openly, by the books and with the public’s interest in mind,” said David Arkush, director of Public Citizen’s Congress Watch. “It levels the playing field between wealthy corporations and non-profit organizations as well as those who can afford hiring an insider lobbying firm and those who cannot. Everyone who requests an earmark must request it in the same way.”

After persuading Congress not to attach any earmarks to the $787 billion stimulus package earlier this year, many lobbying firms saw a chance to win special spending projects for their paying clients from executive officials charged with doling out the money. The wealthier and more expensive shops hired new lobbyists and tapped into former executive branch staffers with the goal of profiting from the stimulus spending program.

This helped prompt a March 20 memorandum from the White House directing executive officials to avoid oral requests from registered lobbyists for earmarks, and to accept such requests only in writing and post them on the Internet within three days. Lobbyists could still make oral communications regarding general policy matters, rather than specific spending projects. The director of the Office of Management and Budget   was instructed to review this policy within 60 days for ways to strengthen it.

“K Street was up in arms as it saw this golden goose slipping away, demanding that the policy be rescinded and threatening legal action,” said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen. “Other lobbyists mocked the policy, claiming that it merely changed their roles from representing paying clients to teaching paying clients how to represent themselves and chauffeuring them back and forth to meetings with executive officials. Now all requestors are covered and all requests for spending projects are public record.”

Much to its credit, the Obama administration has taken several dramatic steps to rein in influence-peddling in federal government, Holman, who added, “This is a long-term struggle, and some of the most important changes still lie ahead.”

Chief among the administration’s challenges is curtailing special interest money in politics through a comprehensive system of public financing of congressional and presidential elections.

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