There was a minor flap last week when the White House claimed that this Congressional Research Service report (entitled “Lobbying the Executive Branch: Current Practices and Options for Change”) vindicated the administration’s lobbying policies. The White House claim was reported rather uncritically by the media, including Kenneth Vogel of Politico. In an article entitled “President Obama’s lobbying reforms praised by Congressional Research Service,” Vogel wrote that “congressional researchers concluded that the administration’s crackdown has ‘already changed the relationship between lobbyists and covered executive branch officials’ and suggested that Congress might consider enacting similar restrictions on itself.” On the White House blog, meanwhile, Norm Eisen wrote “[w]e’re pleased that CRS recognized . . . the President’s historic restrictions on lobbying are having a significant impact in making sure that the government serves the public interest and not special interests.”
Anyone who has read a lot of CRS reports would understand that how unlikely it is that CRS would make an unqualified judgment about anything, much less express an amorphous and subjective opinion such as that implied by Politico and the White House. In fact, if one reads the CRS report, it is apparent that CRS makes no judgments about the wisdom, efficacy or significance of the Obama administration’s lobbying policies. It simply identifies the various policies that have been adopted, summarizes critiques of those policies, and notes several potential options for additional regulation. The interpretation adopted by the White House and Politico is based solely on part of the first sentence of the following paragraph, which appears at the top of page 13 in the report:
Creation of restrictions on federally registered lobbyists’ access to executive branch departments and agencies has already changed the relationship between lobbyists and covered executive branch officials. If desired, there are additional options which might further clarify lobbyists’ relationships with executive branch officials. These options each have advantages and disadvantages for the future relationships between lobbyists and governmental decision-makers. CRS takes no position on any of the options identified in this report.
It seems clear that the phrase “changed the relationship” is part of an awkwardly worded transitional sentence and signifies nothing more than the undisputed fact that the administration has imposed certain new restrictions and requirements on lobbyists and lobbying communications with the executive branch. Nowhere in the report is there any attempt by CRS to evaluate the real world impact of these changes or to draw any conclusions regarding their effectiveness. In other words, CRS is observing that reforms have been made, not “praising” them.
One can perhaps understand Norm Eisen’s attempt to spin the CRS report in the most favorable light to the administration. But what’s Kenneth Vogel’s excuse?