Obama Policy On Lobbyists Raising Civil Liberties Concerns

The Politico reports on questions of violations of free speech in the Obama administration’s attempts to reduce the influence of lobbyists:

Free speech advocates from across the political spectrum are accusing President Barack Obama of impinging on First Amendment rights and are gearing up to take their case public.

At issue is an unprecedented directive that Obama — who has long railed against lobbyists as the personification of a corrupt Washington culture — issued last week barring officials charged with doling out stimulus funds from talking to registered lobbyists about specific projects or applicants for stimulus cash.

Under the directive, which began going into effect this week, agency officials are required to begin meetings about stimulus funding for projects by asking whether any party to the conversation is a lobbyist.

“If so, the lobbyist may not attend or participate in the telephonic or in-person contact, but may submit a communication in writing,” reads Obama’s memo, which requires the agencies to post lobbyists’ written communications online.

The rule is intended to prevent stimulus funds from being “distributed on the basis of factors other than the merits of proposed projects or in response to improper influence or pressure,” according to the memo.

While applauding that goal, Michael Macleod-Ball, chief legislative counsel for the American Civil Liberties Union and himself a lobbyist, questioned the means, saying, “The question is whether this restriction, as it’s drafted, is the best way to achieve that end with the narrowest amount of limitation on an individual’s rights possible.

“From our perspective, the pretty clear answer is ‘no, it’s not.’”

Next week, the left-leaning ACLU will join with the nonprofit watchdog group Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington and the trade group the American League of Lobbyists in sending a letter to the White House protesting the policy, said League President Dave Wenhold.

The article proceedes to describe a defense of this policy given by the Obama adminstration.

Lean Left disagrees that this is a violation of free speech:

How is this a restriction on free speech? Nobody is preventing lobbyists from saying anything they want. But as far as I understand, the First Amendment doesn’t require that anyone has to listen to them. It’s not even a restriction of the rights of the government employees being targeted by the lobbyists: they can talk to lobbyists if they want, also – just not while working in the administration.

This sounds to me like a perfectly ordinary workplace-rules issue. Nobody is guaranteed access to government officials, still less a privileged place in policy-making that affects the entire country, nor are government employees privileged to grant such access if the President says no. Certainly, nobody has a right to demand that they be given such influence just because their employer pays them to do so.

From the right, Ed Morrissey at Hot Air has a different view:

This procedure sounds a lot like the kinds of questions hookers ask johns to keep from getting busted, under the mistaken notion that a cop has to admit his identity if asked directly to avoid entrapment.  In this case, with loads of cash going to little use, the situation is reversed but still ironically applicable.  The johns now have to ask the hookers whether they’re professionals or amateurs…

I made this point repeatedly during the campaign: lobbying is a Constitutionally protected activity.  Obama (and to an almost equal amount John McCain) made lobbyists a fetish over the last two years.  Hillary Clinton actually made the most sense during that time, noting that most lobbyists perform a necessary task well and without corruption.  People hire lobbyists to pursue their political agendas, a task made more and more necessary the larger and more powerful the federal government becomes.

It is not often writers at Hot Air praise a comment from Hillary Clinton. In doing so I think Ed would realize that it is possible for those on one side of the left/right divide to agree with others from time to time. This should have been kept in mind when he concluded, “When Obama loses the ACLU, well, that should speak volumes.”

It isn’t a case of Obama having or losing the ACLU but that the ACLU supports what they see as the correct position on civil liberties regardless of partisan concerns. I’m sure most ACLU members agree that Obama is far preferable to the Republicans on civil liberties issues but will not blindly follow him when they believe he is wrong. This is not the first time the ACLU has opposed an action of the Obama administration (as in this case) and I suspect it won’t be the last. To say that the Obama lost the ACLU for their disagreement on some cases is like saying that Hillary Clinton has won over Hot Air as a result of  Ed’s post. (This, of course, is really just a way to make this post flow into the discussion in the previous post.)


  1. 1
    DavidL says:

    This is simple.  The stmulus meetings are public.  No official of the state, to include the President, has any power under the Constiution to bar members of the public, which include lobbiests, from a public meeting.

  2. 2
    Eclectic Radical says:

    I normally agree with the ACLU, but I have to disagree with them in this issue. It appears to me that they are less concerned with protecting the Constitution, in this one instance, than they are with protecting their priveleges as lobbying organization. I understand this entirely, but I find the tactic a little dishonest.

    I am all in favor of civil liberties and free speech, but lobbying Congress is not simply engaging in free speech. Lobbying Congress is professionally attempting to influence Congress to adopt the policies of one’s employers. Lobbyists currently receive access beyond that of normal citizens seeking to exercise their ‘free speech rights.’ If restricting that access is a violation of those rights, then the average citizen should receive, BY LAW, the same degree of access as a professional lobbyist. Otherwise OUR rights are being infringed. I would support a law requiring that degree of universal access. In its absence, I find claims that limiting lobbyist access violates their civil rights to be unconvincing.

    I have to agree with Lean Left that this is simply a codification of professional rules of conduct for legislators. The written communications are precisely the same avenue for ‘free speech’ to legislators that the rest of us enjoy. If this restriction violates their civil rights, then the ACLU should be campaigning to give the rest of us the same access their lobbyists enjoy. After all, that would mean our civil rights are being violated. They are supposed to be against that. 😉

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