That's Right: Just Keep Regulators More Clueless Than They Already Are

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Imagine a trade show where tech-policy issues are being discussed, but no government policy makers are allowed into the hall. That’s a likely result of the plan proposed by the Office of Government Ethics, which seeks to keep lobbyists as far away as possible from the civil servants who regulate their industries.

More specifically, the proposed “Standards of Ethical Conduct for Employees of the Executive Branch” would extend restrictions on federal employees, who would be barred from attending events where registered lobbyists are present. The standard would cut off attendance at “widely attended events” such as trade shows like the annual cable TV conventions and at smaller showcase events in Washington and on the road.

In a politically well-intentioned, but economically short-sighted move, the White House is plugging gaps in the “Ethics Commitments by Executive Branch Personnel” (Executive Order 13490), which were posted on the first full day of the Obama administration in 2009. The only exception to the new plan would allow public officials who are speaking at a meeting or conference to attend other sessions and visit the trade show floor.

The OGE proposal obviously and instantly raised ire on K Street. Even the advocacy group Common Cause, which endorsed the overall concept, conceded that the proposal to bar trade show visits (along with new prohibitions of gifts valued at less than $20) avoids the biggest problem in the regulator/legislator/lobbyist relationship: campaign contributions. The proposal also offers few clues about how any of these limitations will be enforced.

Although the major cable lobbying associations had no immediate comment on the OGE proposal, the Consumer Electronics Association - like many other technology-oriented groups - came out swinging against it.

“The present White House restrictions on political appointee participation are embarrassing, problematic and not helpful to our hosting responsibilities,” said CEA president and CEO Gary Shapiro, referring to the existing limits on federal employee attendance at the big International Consumer Electronics Show and at CEA’s DC-based tech events. “Extending this requirement to career civil servants would deny government employees the ability to learn about what is happening in business, forge relationships and understand how their actions impact jobs-creating businesses.”

The self-serving opposition of associations, media companies and even any “scientific organization or learned society” (which are also are covered by the restriction) is understandable and appropriate. OGE’s valid anti-lobbying objective off-sets the educational value of acquainting regulators with the complexities of technology and systems. Sure, there is plenty of room for abuse in regulated industries ranging from energy to pharmaceuticals to transportation to communications/media. But in the decades I’ve rubbed shoulders with good civil servants, I’ve also found a huge appetite on their behalf to see how things work, to touch and feel the systems they’re supposed to oversee.

Technology is a “show, not a tell.” The best descriptions and schematics in legal filings rarely make up for a few minutes in front of the device or a walk-around the actual hardware and system software, even amidst the hubbub of a trade show floor. The ethics proposal should include more “exceptions” that will allow guvvies to get up-close to the technologies they oversee. Regulated companies and, more importantly, their consumers will benefit from the increased knowledge of the civil servants who decide on how systems should operate.

To put a blanket prohibition on seeing how things work paves the way for clueless regulation. Which is exactly what we don’t need in the new economy.

Gary Arlen is president of Arlen Communications LLC in Bethesda, MD, and a long-time interactive TV enthusiast. Reach him at