Capitol Hill Listens to Coalitions

Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Monday, May 3, 2004

Joel Malina is a lobbyist who makes his living talking to other lobbyists.

He spends his days persuading the Washington reps of trade associations, interest groups and corporations to cooperate in campaigns to pass legislation. At the moment he manages two such efforts. One wants to preserve hydroelectric power. The other would rein in runaway costs at the U.S. Postal Service.

Together, "they're a handful," he says, shaking his head in frustration.

It turns out that managing the egos and divergent agendas of high-price lobbyists is nearly as hard as coddling the prima donnas on Capitol Hill.

Luckily, Malina is accustomed to dealing with large groups of people. He used to be a song-and-dance man off-Broadway and in regional theater. After graduating from Yale (and its Whiffenpoofs, the world's oldest collegiate a cappella group), Malina, now 39, took leading roles in such plays as "Fame -- the Musical," "Candide" and "Forever Plaid."

Eventually, he chose the theatrics of Washington instead. He started as an intern in 1992 for what is now Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates and quickly climbed the lobbying ladder. His acting skills came in handy for his chosen niche: coalition building.

"The ability to communicate with others is very similar on stage and in the coalition business," he says, "only now I don't have to wear makeup or wear tights."

Official Washington is often thought of as a place at odds with itself. So people like Malina who are good at bringing people together rather than pulling them apart are in high demand.

"Coalitions are hugely important," says Dan Danner, senior vice president of the National Federation of Independent Business, the small-business lobby. "I don't think any organization can move or get something done by themselves; you have to participate in coalitions."

And participate lobbyists do. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce is a member of at least 300 coalitions, says R. Bruce Josten, an executive vice president. The scope and specificity of these endeavors is remarkable. For instance, the chamber directs coalitions that advocate the highway construction bill and the anti-class-action-lawsuit bill. It's also a member of two separate coalitions that want to expand the H1B and H2A visa programs. "You name it, there's a coalition for it," Josten says.

You'd think that the last thing that downtown D.C. needs are a few hundred more organizations. And, truth be told, many coalitions are nothing more than make-work. "There are coalitions that do nothing but talk among themselves," Danner complains. "People attend their meetings so that they can write back to their CEOs and say, 'Look at what we're doing!' That's a hollow exercise."

And some coalitions are so vaguely named that it's hard to imagine that they do anything at all. Take the Coalition for Economic Growth and American Jobs. (It fights legislation that would restrict the outsourcing of U.S. jobs overseas.) Then there's Voices for Choices. (It wants to force the regional telephone companies to open their networks for use by competitors such as AT&T.)

CONTINUED     1        >

© 2004 The Washington Post Company