How that defense pie (pork pie, perhaps?) will contract is far from preordained. And therein lies the Good, the Bad and the Profitable.
“We’re about to enter hand-to-hand combat,” says Steve Hart, who runs the lobby boutique Williams & Jensen. “It will be this new, shiny airplane versus that new, shiny destroyer.”
For K Street, there was little business to be had in the run-up to the sequester. “It’s hard to lobby something that comes down to [House Speaker John A.] Boehner and the president in a room,” notes Hart. But many among the city’s estimated 10,000 or more lobbyists hope the sequester itself — a budget bludgeon of either salutary or iniquitous value, depending on your point of view — might actually provide a slight uptick in billings.
And surely no one would want to deny the good men and women of K Street a better 2013 than the past few years. After all, like the rest of the country, they’ve been suffering too, in a K Street kind of way. “We’ve absolutely cut back on costs,” says Prime Policy’s Chuck Merin, from trimming bonuses to moderating the “staggering” expense of online subscriptions. The OB-C Group’s Larry O’Brien reports that, among other cost-cutting measures, “we trimmed the health plan a little bit . . . and made some adjustments with regard to the plants.”
It has been a bit stressful, if lobbyists are allowed to say so themselves. For some time now, K Street’s primary meal ticket — the 535 members of the House and Senate — has been immobilized in a rictus of partisan gridlock, and the lobbyists’ mostly corporate clients have been hammered by the worst recession in decades. When companies are forced to cut costs, they often don’t make an exception for their stable of outside consultants, as contract lobbyists are euphemistically known. Indeed, trying to retain or add business in the face of corporate budget cuts is perhaps a lobbyists’ toughest sell.
“At least one of the top four [defense contractors] cut one-third of their consultants — just fired them,” says one lobbyist who did not wish to be named. “Another company had four consultants — and they fired three. I’m the last person standing, and I got a 50 percent cut.”
Few people expect this new Congress to be much more proactive than the last, the most sclerotic in decades, where naming post offices and courthouses actually passed for getting something done. But there is reason for hope.
“I wouldn’t go so far as to call it a thaw,” said Patton Boggs lawyer Stuart Pape, who for years was the managing partner at the firm, one of the city’s perennial lobbying stalwarts. “But there’s a little melted water on the street.” Say, a puddle of potential business for cybersecurity and immigration reform, important to several sectors of the business community, perhaps a bit of energy work, a potential cloudburst for tax reform — if it were to actually achieve critical mass. And on the regulatory side, a veritable hurricane of billable hours as the Securities and Exchange Commission figures out how to implement the Dodd-Frank Wall Street reforms and the Department of Health and Human Services works out the kinks in the Affordable Care Act.