In a blow to the career of Lanny Davis, the Obama Administration is implementing a policy that would block hundreds of lobbyists from participating on federal advisory panels.

Hundreds, if not thousands, of lobbyists are likely to be ejected from federal advisory panels as part of a little-noticed initiative by the Obama administration to curb K Street’s influence in Washington, according to White House officials and lobbying experts.

The new policy — issued with little fanfare this fall by the White House ethics counsel — may turn out to be the most far-reaching lobbying rule change so far from President Obama, who also has sought to restrict the ability of lobbyists to get jobs in his administration and to negotiate over stimulus contracts.

The initiative is aimed at a system of advisory committees so vast that federal officials don’t have exact numbers for its size; the most recent estimates tally nearly 1,000 panels with total membership exceeding 60,000 people.

Under the policy, which is being phased in over the coming months, none of the more than 13,000 lobbyists in Washington would be able to hold seats on the committees, which advise agencies on trade rules, troop levels, environmental regulations, consumer protections and thousands of other government policies.

This is obviously welcome news. But it’s worth considering exactly how much power these advisory panels actually hold. The lobbyists quoted in the piece say that federal agencies rely heavily on them. However, I’m not sure they’re the most reliable narrators. The most well-known advisory panel in recent vintage is the Defense Policy Board, the Richard Perle-led outfit which blustered for war in Iraq. But does anyone believe that the Defense Department would have reached a different conclusion if it wasn’t for the Defense Policy Board?

The explosion of advisory board themselves may be a bigger problem. The numbers differ, but there are as many as 1,000 of them, with over 60,000 individual advisors. The less empowered these panels are, the less they may be seen as enticing opportunities for lobbyists to get their favored policy positions in front of federal agencies.

And maybe that’s the idea. By removing lobbyists from the panels, perhaps they lose their significance somewhat. Agencies may have been reluctant to resist the advice because of the general corporate capture of government, or because of the sense that Congress would overturn that resistance through legislation. Now that the panels are truly independent, they’re probably more easily ignored. Which is probably a good outcome.

David Dayen

David Dayen