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As frustrations mount, does D.C. need new lobbying strategy?

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After its latest disappointment at the hands of Congress and the White House, the District of Columbia faces a difficult question: Can a city that is bursting with lobbyists do a better job lobbying for itself?

President Obama signed into law a spending measure last Friday that included a ban on the city using its funds to pay for abortions for low-income women, as well as a private-school voucher program that has divided local leaders. The bill averted a government shutdown that would have brought large portions of the city to a halt.

The frustration that erupted after the ban was negotiated into Obama’s budget deal with Congress is not new for the District, which for years has tried unsuccessfully to gain either statehood or voting representation in Congress. The city — which can’t spend its money without Congress’s say-so — has also sought to win some measure of control over its finances, but only with mixed results.

The District has its share of advocates — Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) has been in the House for 20 years, two shadow senators and a shadow representative also work on the Hill, the grass-roots group DC Vote lobbies lawmakers with some pro bono help from the law and lobbying firm Patton Boggs, and the mayor has a professional government affairs staff. But to some activists, the sum of those efforts isn’t enough.

“Every other issue in this town has a gaggle of lobbyists, has a [political action committee] and is more organized than we are,” said shadow Rep. Mike Panetta (D). “I think we need to step up our game and start behaving like the big corporations, the big trade associations and the big nonprofits that have a sustained, professional presence on the Hill.”

Outside hires

The District pays outside lobbyists, who were hired when Adrian M. Fenty (D) served as mayor, but their work has attracted little notice.

U.S. Senate records show that Mitch Butler — a former Interior Department official in the Bush administration — has lobbied on behalf of the District since October 2009 on “public lands issues” and “land development.” Through the end of 2010, the city paid Butler at least $100,000 for his efforts.

Separately, the D.C. Office of the Deputy Mayor for Planning & Economic Development has paid the firm Van Ness Feldman $200,000 since November 2009 for “Anacostia Waterfront Initiative appropriations, St. Elizabeths development matters and federal land transfers,” according to registration forms.

Neither Norton nor Janene D. Jackson, the director of the District’s Office of Policy and Legislative Affairs, was aware the city had lobbyists on the payroll until they were informed by a reporter.

“I’ve never heard from them,” Norton said.

The office of Mayor Vincent C. Gray (D) did not respond to requests for details on the work done by the lobbyists. Butler and Van Ness Feldman also did not respond to requests for comment.

The city does not employ any private lobbyists on the issues that have caused the most friction between the city and the federal government: statehood, voting rights, budgetary autonomy, gun-control laws and policy “riders” on issues such as abortion and needle-exchange programs.

Regardless of who is on the payroll, the city should adopt some of the tactics used by K Street professionals, suggested former Rep. Tom Davis (R-Va.), rather than staging protests.

“I don’t think it went over very well with Congress,” Davis said of a rally last week that led to the arrests of Gray and D.C. Council members. “I think they’re laughing and saying: ‘This is so ’60s.”

Instead, Davis said, “I think they need to rethink their whole approach to how they handle Congress.”

That means taking lawmakers to some Nationals or Wizards games (members of Congress can accept gifts from local governments), or arranging city tours for them and their families. Whatever it takes, he said, to “establish some relationships.”

Jackson, the city’s point person on congressional relations, disagrees with Davis.

“We don’t lobby the way lobbyists lobby,” she said. “We’re a government.”

Jackson said her office — which includes nine full-time employees and a budget of less than $800,000 — has neither the time nor the resources to plan social events for lawmakers, nor does she think that’s the best way for the city to make its case.

“It’s more important for [members] to know our unemployment rate” than for them to get free tickets or cocktails from the city, Jackson said.

Rep. Jose E. Serrano (N.Y.), the top Democrat on the appropriations subcommittee that controls the District budget, said the city has done a good job keeping in touch with him and his staff.

The city’s task was easier when Democrats had the majority and Serrano, who supported their agenda, was chairman of the panel. With Republicans in charge, he said, “The difference now is they have to be more aggressive.”

No worries

Some members can be moved only by political pressure. But that can be difficult for the District to apply because it has no vote in Congress and is an automatic win for Democrats in presidential races. Lawmakers can vote on District issues without worrying about the impact of their actions.

“No member of Congress has ever lost reelection because of a vote on the District of Columbia,” said Julius W. Hobson Jr., who handled congressional affairs for the District in the late 1980s. But there was one exception.

In 1972, Rep. John McMillan (S.C.) — the longtime chairman of the District of Columbia Committee and opponent of home rule — lost his reelection bid in the Democratic primary after then-Del. Walter Fauntroy (D-D.C.) went to his South Carolina district and helped rally African American voters against him.

Hoping to repeat that example, Panetta in 2007 created the Free and Equal DC Fund, a PAC designed to raise money to pressure lawmakers on D.C. issues in their districts. But the committee has raised less than $3,000, airing radio ads against two lawmakers.

Ultimately, several observers said, sustained grass-roots pressure — of the type organized by DC Vote, which is partly funded by the city — may be the District’s most effective tool, but only if more residents buy into the idea. The protest that led to Gray’s arrest attracted about 200 people, and less than half that many showed up for another Capitol Hill protest staged Friday.

Also, Norton suggested, the District could learn something from the tactics of conservative activists.

“The tea party is always on the case. They sent people up here, real faces, they had people on the ground,” Norton said. “Here we are in the bosom of the Congress, and they never hear from us.”

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