Meetings industry leaders are speaking out against regulations proposed by the U.S. Office of Government Ethics that would expand the Lobbyists Gift Ban, preventing federal government employees from attending most trade events and exhibitions where their attendance is paid for by lobbying organizations or lobbyists.

The proposed amendment to the Lobbyist Gift Ban, posted September 13 in the Federal Register, would eliminate an exception that now allows federal employees and political appointees of the Executive Office Branch to attend “widely attended gatherings” and accept “social invitations,” as guest of lobbyists. “When such gifts are offered by persons who are paid to influence government action, the concerns obviously are magnified,” stated the proposal.

The change would not apply to attendance at association and professional society meetings where the focus is on education and professional development, nor would it affect offers of free attendance in connection with official speaking engagements. However, meetings industry leaders are alarmed.

“This reckless intrusion into commerce, if adopted, would further isolate regulators from the industries they must understand,” said Steven Hacker, president, International Association of Exhibition and Events. “The learning and communications that routinely take place during trade events are among the most important ways that government officials and business leaders can exchange views and ideas.”

Gary Shapiro, president and CEO of the Consumer Electronics Association, said the restrictions would hurt businesses. “The government plays an important role in facilitating and even helping host these events, as they attract visitors from all over the world, including important government officials from other countries. As we increasingly restrict the ability of government employees to participate in these events, we hurt smaller U.S. companies that rely on trade shows to display their wares.”

In a letter to the OGE, the American Society of Association Executives expressed its concerns. “OGE is right to exclude professional societies and other types of nonprofit organizations from the WAG restriction. There are tremendous benefits in allowing agency officials and other government employees to attend programs and other events that have a clear nexus to the government’s interest. ASAE is concerned that OGE perceives trade association events as lacking similar benefit to the federal government. Yes, many trade associations do engage in advocacy, but they also hold numerous programs, seminars, and other events where industry experts share valuable perspectives, raise important questions, and help formulate strategies for addressing difficult, complex issues. Banning government employees from these types of events does not promote informed policymaking or rulemaking.”

Concludes Hacker: “All responsible leaders of the business community, for-profit companies as well as not-for-profit associations, must view this latest attack by the federal government on business as a call to arms. We must come together to reject this absurd and potentially harmful set of rules or we will have only ourselves to blame.”

People can submit written comments to the OGE on the proposal by November 14 by mail, fax, or e-mail. Check the proposal in the Federal Register for details.