Lax laws let Cab­i­net mem­bers lobby

Jewell makes open pitch for In­te­rior

The Washington Times Weekly - - Politics - BY CHLOE JOHN­SON

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.

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