Electric lift Jack Harlow Essex
Their weapons now are BlackBerries and cell phones. But connections, savvy, and fundraising clout are still the keys to the influence wielded by the city’s 50 top lobbyists.
After a lucrative 12-year run on Capitol Hill, it hasn’t been the best of times for Washington lobbyists, especially Republicans.
One of the most prominent lobbyists, Jack Abramoff, now resides in Cumberland, Maryland, a guest of the Federal Bureau of Prisons. His prosecution on charges of giving illegal gifts and meals to lawmakers and defrauding clients cast a pall over a profession that, fairly or not, didn’t have the best reputation to begin with.
For Republicans who thought things couldn’t get worse, they did. Democrats won both houses of Congress in the 2006 elections, returning some old bulls—among them Barney Frank, Charles Rangel, John Conyers, John Dingell, and Henry Waxman—to power.
Twelve years earlier, new Republican majority leader Tom DeLay instituted the K Street Project, by which loyal friends of the 1994 Republican revolution were to be rewarded. Big business was none too subtly informed that friends and aides of the victors should reap the spoils.
Democratic powers like Thomas Hale Boggs Jr. began talking about retirement. Republican staffers and even members of Congress, eager to cash in, left the Hill and began recruiting clients who could benefit from their contacts and influence.
Abramoff was just one lobbyist who became a hot property. In 1998, when we last picked Washington’s 50 top lobbyists, Abramoff ranked 22nd. Shortly thereafter he was wooed away from one firm by another, whose revenues skyrocketed—and whose partners apparently didn’t look closely at how he operated.
The amount of money generated by people claiming to have influence that can affect legislation, appropriations, and agency decisions is big. Laws now require lobbyists to file financial-disclosure forms when they make contact with a legislator. Those forms reveal the minimum that lobbyists can make. Much more money still legally goes unreported—for organizing grassroots lobbying campaigns, advising clients on how they can lobby, making speeches, contacting regulatory agencies, and creating public-relations campaigns.
A major group of clients is public universities, hospitals, and municipalities, which spend hundreds of millions of dollars each year to win appropriations, often in the form of earmarks—language designating that funds go to a specific project or institution—that their elected representatives don’t have the time or power to get.
“Congressional staffs are extremely busy, and often there aren’t enough staffers to do everything, ” says a lobbyist who specializes in representing cities. “Our job is to facilitate communication, package priorities, and make sure that requests for funding meet deadlines and get included in legislation.”
This has created an odd situation on Capitol Hill. Members of the House of Representatives make $165, 200 a year. Former congressmen like Bill Paxon of New York and Bob Livingston of Louisiana make that much representing a single university, hospital, or water district. Livingston’s lobby group took in $16 million last year, much of it from government institutions in Louisiana that he formerly represented.
Two of the biggest lobby firms in Washington, Cassidy & Associates and Van Scoyoc Associates, specialize in earmarks.
“Public institutions are starved for facilities, ” says Stewart Van Scoyoc, who counts dozens of colleges among his clients. “They can’t go to their states because the legislatures claim they have no money, so they come to us.”
Depending on the size of the project and the target funding, lobbying fees can range from $700, 000 to $1, 000, 000 a year, on the high side. There are no guarantees—lobbyists are not allowed to work on contingency. If the project is not included in an appropriations bill, there is nothing to do but try, try again the next year, perhaps with a more influential lobbyist.
Earmarks are profitable, but many lobbyists look down their noses at that practice area. Says tax lobbyist John Raffaelli, “We don’t play in that world. Our firm is more involved in creating strategies for policies that my clients are advocating.”
Crudely distilled into three words, practitioners say, the lobbying game boils down to “finding, grinding, and minding.”
You find a client with a need, and then you have to go into the system and find a way to get what the client wants done. That’s the grinding. The minding is making sure that your language or your earmark stays in the bill until it is signed by the President and isn’t axed, thanks to a rival lobbyist, at the last minute. The minding, lobbyists say, continues even after your legislation is passed.
In 2006 a mysterious last-minute provision that had the effect of prohibiting online poker made its way into a port-security bill. Martin Gold, the lobbyist responsible for making it happen, is with Covington & Burling, which represents the National Football League. The NFL was not really interested in poker, but many online gambling sites also allow betting on football games. The NFL wants to stamp out gambling on its games. It doesn’t like that online gambling sites make money off its product without paying the NFL for the privilege. Online poker got caught in the crossfire when Gold’s provision made it much more difficult to transfer cash from American banks to online casinos.
After the new Congress took power in 2007, House Finance Committee chair Barney Frank announced that he would revisit the ban on Internet gaming and hoped to rescind the measure the NFL paid for. That, lobbyists say, is where the minding comes in. Even after a bill is passed and signed, it is subject to reversal. The good lobbyist can’t let his or her guard down.