One of the most time honored -- and simplest -- methods of lobbying is called "showing the flag." It works this way: When a critical vote is imminent in Congress, representatives of contesting points of view show up and make sure that they're seen by lawmakers. By merely being present -- and in that way, showing the flag for their cause -- they remind decision makers of their positions and impose an implicit pressure.
The National Association of Realtors has taken this technique to a higher level. Later this month, the trade group's 100-person D.C. office will move into a spectacular new building on Capitol Hill that will serve as a permanent reminder to legislators that the association's issues matter. Depending on your perspective, the $46 million edifice looks like a gigantic slice of key lime pie or a blue-green battleship that has the Capitol dome in its wake. Either way, the Realtors' dazzling structure, just a few blocks from Congress, stands as a potent statement. It says: "We are a serious lobby, here to stay."
Which is exactly the impression they want to convey. Their 12-story landmark, which occupies a small, triangular spit of land at E Street and New Jersey Avenue NW, is clearly visible -- in shades of bright green depending on the tint of the sky -- to anyone who looks northeasterly from the Capitol. As such, it gives the well-known, home buyers' mantra "location, location, location" a poignant place in lobbying's lexicon as well.
In Washington and in the state capitals, interest groups have long chosen to ring government buildings with their own offices as a display of their clout and determination. It's no coincidence, for instance, that the presidents of both the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the AFL-CIO can look down at the White House from their windows.
What's more, the size and prominence of those buildings tend to reflect the fortunes of the people they represent. Such is the case with the Realtors. Despite hard times in other sectors of the economy, home sales have boomed for most of the past decade and, as a result, the Realtors association recently became the country's first million-member trade and professional organization.
Its building, therefore, represents "our lobbying power, our prestige and our financial success," said Realtor spokesman Lucien Salvant, as he admires a panoramic view of the city from the rooftop party space. "It also shows that we have a strong voice in government and that we'll keep an eye on Congress."
The Realtors group is no stranger to using real estate to make such symbolic points. Its headquarters building in Chicago was handsome enough to have been featured in the opening sequence of a sitcom that starred comedian Bob Newhart. The Billy Goat Tavern in the building's basement was the inspiration for the famous Saturday Night Live skit that lampooned a restaurant that sold only cheeseburgers and Pepsi -- no Coke. And already, the new Washington edifice (with the Capitol in the background) is the centerpiece of TV commercials that are designed to enhance the association's reputation.
Such a stunning addition to the otherwise drab architecture of that part of town has already sparked a little jealousy. In an interview, Gerald M. Howard, the chief executive of the Realtors' cross-town rival, the National Association of Home Builders, tries to be complimentary, but can't quite pull it off. "It's beautiful, a monument to Realtors," Howard said of the Realtors' new home. "The location is wonderful."
But he also offers a few criticisms. "It's a very glitzy building," he said, "while ours is a an egalitarian, working-class building -- very functional." And then he delivers a final jab: "As opposed to the Realtors' white Cadillac, we have an SUV."
It wasn't long ago that positions were reversed. The homebuilders occupied one of the city's more interesting buildings: an eye-catching, inward sloping structure that teased the observer by looking like it might topple over onto M Street NW. The Realtors association resided for years in a dowdy old building in what was then a dicey part of downtown on 14th Street NW until it sold the location (at an impressive profit) and has rented space elsewhere ever since. I can still hear the derisive chuckles among competing lobbyists at the very notion that the Realtors' association was renting!
But now the Realtors have the last laugh. A couple of years ago, the homebuilders completed a more than $25 million overhaul of its building, which turned its upside-down-pyramid facade into something more boring and boxy. The renovation doubled the size of the building but it also left the distinctive cantilever as part of an indoor atrium.
In contrast, the Realtors association took the multimillion-dollar proceeds from the sale of its old building and used it as a down payment on the futuristic and environmentally friendly design that will debut soon. The blue-green windows, which swath the building like wind-blown sails, are actually state-of-the-art temperature modulators. Gauges inside make sure that reading lights don't grow too dim and that carbon dioxide levels don't get too high. As a conservation measure, rainwater is collected through tiles on the roof for reuse in the building's operations. (Urinals are waterless for the same reason, but please don't ask me how they work.)
There are problems, of course. For one thing, no one believes that the Realtors are as important as their architecture makes them seem. For another, the new space may be unique but it's also inconveniently tight. The building is so narrow -- and storage space so scarce -- that the association had to hire consultants to persuade its employees to throw away tons of unneeded documents before they moved.
Every worker gets floor-to-ceiling windows whether they occupy a cubicle or one of the senior staffers' fancy, octagonal offices. But the best view of the Capitol is reserved for the "event room" on the top floor. In the years to come, Realtors will hold many fundraisers and other lobbying-related functions there. In fact, Salvant said of the room, "We built it for them." To explain who he means by "them," he simply gestures out the window toward the dome.
Indeed, if everything goes as planned, the Realtors' new building will be very hard for lawmakers to ever forget.
Jeffrey Birnbaum writes about the intersection of government and business every other Monday. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.