Lax laws let Cabinet members lobby
Jewell makes open pitch for Interior
Interior Secretary Sally Jewell has been crisscrossing the country this week to drum up local support for the renewal of a conservation fund set to expire at the end of September. She’s announced new preservation efforts and visited the home states of congressional conservatives who have resisted the new spending.
For instance, she unveiled a new preservation effort at a Civil War battlefield in Virginia — home to House Majority Leader Eric Cantor — and hosted an event highlighting “America’s hunting, fishing and boating heritage” in Birmingham, Alabama, the backyard of former House Financial Services Committee Chairman Spencer Bachus and fellow Republican Sen. Jeff Sessions, a major advocate for fiscal belt-tightening.
If Ms. Jewell were a member of an advocacy group, her tour might be considered old-fashioned lobbying. But in the parlance of Washington, her travel stops are being called educational “celebrations” of the Land and Water Conservation Fund, which takes royalties from offshore drilling for the preservation and maintenance of national parks.
And her tour stops are all perfectly legal despite the stated intent of the Anti-Lobbying Act, ethics experts say. The act, originally passed in 1919, says that “no appropriated funds shall be used directly or indirectly to pay for any personal service … intended or designed to influence in any manner a member of Congress, a jurisdiction or an official of any government, to favor, adopt or oppose, by vote or otherwise, any legislation … whether before or after the introduction of any bill, measure or resolution” proposing such legislation.
However, lax enforcement from the Justice Department coupled with a liberal interpretation of the law — which allows exceptions for necessary communication between federal agencies and Congress — allows high-level officials like Ms. Jewell to routinely go on such tours.
“As a general proposition, Cabinet officers pretty much can do anything they want to do,” said Tom Susman, director of governmental affairs for the American Bar Association.
The Anti-Lobbying Act and other federal regulations are in place to curtail the lobbying activities of recipients of federal funds, including federal employees. Though her advocacy work as a Cabinet official is not considered lobbying, Ms. Jewell’s tour is currently paid for through Interior Department funds.
“The Secretary’s travel is funded by the Appropriation for Departmental Management/Salaries and Expenses. The appropriation funds her salary and travel and other costs and supports her role as the spokesperson and manager of the Department’s programs, which includes the programs funded through the Land and Water Conservation Fund,” Jessica Kershaw, the department’s press secretary, said.
According to Mr. Susman, the law has been interpreted this way because Cabinet members have an obvious need to promote the programs and initiatives of the administration.
President Obama has already approved requested moneys for the fund in his 2015 budget proposal.
“Both Secretary Jewell and other Interior Department officials look forward to continuing conversations in communities across the country in the coming weeks to reflect the overall efforts of the Obama administration to call for full, mandatory funding for the LWCF as one of the most effective tools for creating and protecting urban parks, open spaces, recreation sites and clean water projects,” Ms. Kershaw said.
Though the events are designed to highlight the benefits of the fund and spark support among stakeholders and local officials, the tour cannot be construed legally as a “grass-roots” effort. Grass-roots lobbying, in its legal definition, occurs when an organization urges its supporters or members to contact their representation in Congress in support of a policy objective.
Mr. Susman gave the example of an old case in the Department of Transportation: The secretary at the time told department employees to continue promoting a program facing funding challenges on Capitol Hill. An employee lower on the ladder, Mr. Susman’s client at the time, then directed other employees below him to call lawmakers and request funding. The employees on the lowest rung then began making calls.
“The secretary didn’t get in trouble; he was simply promoting programs. The guys at the bottom didn’t get in trouble; they were simply following orders. It was the man in the middle,” Mr. Susman said.
While the biggest formal penalty the Transportation bureaucrat received was a citation, the scrutiny from Congress ensured that he eventually quit his job, Mr. Susman said. The legislation prohibiting lobbying by recipients of federal funds, including members of the executive branch, is loose enough that the Justice Department has never prosecuted an infraction of the statute.
“The worst you ever get is a GAO report or an [inspector general’s] report, or members of Congress [will] complain like hell,” Mr. Susman added.