For most of official Washington, the busy season ends tomorrow when voters go to the polls. Political insiders work day and night during the run up to Election Day. Then they kick back for a while.
But for a few District denizens, Nov. 2 will mark the start of the hard slog. That's when interest groups turn to executive recruiters who specialize in hiring lobbyists. Their task: to match the groups' staffing to whatever the voters decide.
"After the election, there will be the inevitable churn," predicts Leslie Hortum, a headhunter for Spencer Stuart, the executive-search firm. "It's going to be a busy time."
Some of this rejiggering is entirely predictable. If Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) wins the White House and/or Democrats take control of the Senate, then lobbying organizations all over town will reverse their recent hiring practices and stock up on Democrats.
"It's not any different than Home Depot," analogizes John F. Jonas of Patton Boggs LLP, the lobbying law firm. "You stock up on snow shovels if you get heavy snow. If there's a big Democratic win, you look to add to your cadre of Democrats."
And vice versa, of course. If President Bush is reelected and the GOP majorities in Congress expand, lobbying firms will increase their already significant reliance on Republican consultants and staff. Democrats will continue to have a tough time finding jobs.
But lobbying's next game of musical chairs will be more complicated -- and interesting -- than that. To express the situation as an economist might: Lobbying isn't just a demand-based business. It's also motivated by supply. Sure, if one party predominates in government, so too will lobbyists of that stripe. At the same time, the talent pool for new lobbyists is finite and self-selected. In other words, the people K Street hires in the coming weeks and months will depend on who's looking for work.
"We don't hire partisans, we hire people," says Joel Jankowsky, who heads the lobbying practice of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld LLP. "We look at the field as it presents itself."
No matter the outcome of the election, that field will include many former Bush officials. "There will probably be a lot of Bush appointees who will be coming out even if Bush wins," says Steven C. Anderson, president of the National Restaurant Association. "Four years is a long time to be in office. There's a high burnout factor in those jobs."
There's already speculation -- possibly completely wrong -- that the No. 1 post-election catch for any lobbying shop or law firm will be Andrew H. Card Jr., the president's chief of staff. Card worked as a lobbyist and association head before joining the White House and will likely make giving advice about Washington to corporations the next part of his career.
Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge, Health and Human Services Secretary Tommy G. Thompson and Labor Secretary Elaine L. Chao are also high on the list of potential Bush administration evacuees who would be much sought-after as lobbyists.
Neither Card nor the cabinet officers are saying what their plans are. But they would be foolish not to consider taking a position in D.C.'s persuasion industry. "It used to be that a senior person in the White House could double or maybe even triple their salary" in post-government lobbying work, says Eric Vautour of Russell Reynolds Associates. "Now senior people could go 10 to even 15 times their salary, if you count in board seats and stock options and such."
Where they land will depend on the openings available at the time. There ought to be plenty. Washington's notorious revolving door allows people into government as well as out of it. And almost every major lobbying shop in town reports that it expects -- indeed hopes -- that some of its most talented people will go into government service. The more "inside" experience their employees have, the better lobbyists they become.
Most of America is fixated on the presidential contest. But that's not the obsession of top lobbyists. They're keeping closer tabs on congressional races. The reason: Their business tends to focus on Congress, not the White House. "Congress is where the action is for most lobbyists," says Nels Olson of Korn/Ferry International.
Executive branch lobbying is often accomplished at a technical or nonpolitical level. Veterans of the bureaucracy from almost any era can handle the lobbying there. But Capitol Hill requires a more personal touch. That's why changes in congressional control would send shock waves through the shallow canyons of K Street.
If the Senate goes Democratic, all those new committee chairmen will have to be paid close attention. Democratic lobbyists will come back into vogue in a hurry. But the new wrinkle this year is that seismic shifts might occur even if the partisan balance remains the same.
South Dakota Sen. Thomas A. Daschle, the chamber's minority leader, is in the fight of his political life. If he loses his reelection bid, a whole new set of leaders would rise to run the D-side of the Senate, and a fresh elite of Democratic lobbyists would come to the fore in their wake.
The House faces an even bigger potential change. Speculation is rampant that the ethics committee's serial admonitions of Rep. Tom DeLay (R-Tex.) could force the House Republican Conference to remove him as majority leader, the second-ranking slot in the GOP hierarchy. More than almost any other lawmaker, DeLay commands a large and influential network of former aides who now lobby. If DeLay were to fall from grace, a different group of Republican consultants would rush to take their place.
"A lot of people are focused on Tom DeLay," says Larry LaRocco, president of Fleishman-Hillard Government Relations. "If he were not to survive in the leadership position, a lot of my colleagues would make adjustments."
It's not a surprise, then, that a whole raft of trade associations plan to pick their new leaders after the election. These include the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the Cosmetic, Toiletry, and Fragrance Association, the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers, the National Cable & Telecommunications Association, the American Insurance Association, the National Food Processors Association and the American Chemistry Council.
Several companies are also waiting to see what happens on Election Day before naming heads of their lobbying offices, such as Freddie Mac, Cinergy and Visa USA, headhunters say.
For Democrats, almost any alteration in the partisan landscape will be an improvement. "It can't get any worse than it is now," says Rep. Calvin M. Dooley (D-Calif.), who is retiring from the House and is looking to become a lobbyist. But even a Democratic sweep, he says, will only help "on the margin."
Jacqueline Arends of executive search firm Spencer Stuart agrees: "I don't foresee wholesale dumping of Washington office reps or trade association heads as a result of the election, no matter how it turns out. Those jobs tend to be held for a long time -- 10-plus years."
In addition, the infamous K Street Project, which tried to install Republicans at major trade associations, has soured many on selecting their lobbyists based solely on party affiliation. Dooley, a Democrat with a pro-business voting record, says he's gotten lots of nibbles. Indeed, organizations and companies "aren't looking for lightning rods; they want people who can be effective on both sides of the aisle," Hortum says.
The balance between those sides, however, is probably about to change.
Jeffrey Birnbaum writes about the intersection of government and business every other Monday. His e-mail address is email@example.com.