How Dare You Petition the Government, Expanded

From The Washington Post, “White House Broadens Communications Limits“:

The White House is bolstering its restrictions on lobbying for stimulus funds, expanding the ban on oral communications with administration officials to include not only federally registered lobbyists but also consultants and other individuals who seek to exert influence over the spending process.

As summarized in “update,” published on the White House, “Update on Recovery Act Lobbying Rules: New Limits on Special Interest Influence,” a memo, or blog post, on online commentary, from Norm Eisen, White House Ethics Counsel:

First, we will expand the restriction on oral communications to cover all persons, not just federally registered lobbyists.  For the first time, we will reach contacts not only by registered lobbyists but also by unregistered ones, as well as anyone else exerting influence on the process.  We concluded this was necessary under the unique circumstances of the stimulus program.

Second, we will focus the restriction on oral communications to target the scenario where concerns about merit-based decision-making are greatest –after competitive grant applications are submitted and before awards are made.  Once such applications are on file, the competition should be strictly on the merits.  To that end, comments (unless initiated by an agency official) must be in writing and will be posted on the Internet for every American to see.

Third, we will continue to require immediate internet disclosure of all other communications with registered lobbyists.  If registered lobbyists have conversations or meetings before an application is filed, a form must be completed and posted to each agency’s website documenting the contact.

Our bolding. What exactly is “the merits?” How do we determine what these merits are? Apparently not through oral communication, i.e., “Oh, hi, Bill. That’s a good project.” No phone calls, either.

“A form must be completed…” If the White House wishes to achieve transparency,  it should start by banning the use of the passive voice so communications are clear.

Lobbyists and organizations that lobby complained that the White House’s restrictions on lobbying on stimulus fund projects were discriminatory and unfair because the same restrictions didn’t apply to people like corporate executives or officials. So these memorandumly noted changes address that fairness issue by expanding the ban on orally petitioning the government or expressing one’s views through speech. In the interests of transparency the First Amendment must be sacrificed.

The restrictions are also ambiguous enough that a lobbyist or other petitioner won’t be sure how to fully comply. So if someone runs afoul of White House officials, a phone call to a news outlet or a friendly prosecutor can punish the offender. Ambiguous rules plus capricious application equals negative rule of law.

UPDATE (1 p.m.): Mark Tapscott of the Washington Examiner reaches similar conclusions. From “White House moves to restrict criticism of stimulus projects“:

This is the Camel’s nose under the tent, being poked because of special circumstances. Let government restrict political expression – i.e. lobbying of government officials regarding policy – in one small, supposedly specialized area and not long after the specialized area starts expanding. Eventually, all political expression regarding all policy will become subject to government regulation.

More on this as it develops. And trust me, it will develop.

(Hat tip, Instapundit. And thanks for the links, Mark and Glenn!)

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