By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Monday, November 13, 2006
Democrats took control of Congress in part by bashing Republicans for their coziness with "special interests." You'd think, then, that lobbyists would have a hard time finding employment when the new Congress convenes next year.
Lobbying firms all over town have posted "Help Wanted" signs, anticipating more business than ever. The prime candidates for these jobs are Democratic staffers, who might be lured to the private sector by bigger salaries just as their bosses come into power. But Republicans might also be in demand.
Turns out that divided government is good for the lobbying game. Change, in general, creates more need for expert advice. And when that change is a move from one-party control to two-party competition, the market for translators and guides from both sides of the aisle expands a lot.
"I tell my Republican friends, 'Despair not,' " said Joel Johnson, a partner at Glover Park Group, an all-Democratic lobbying and public affairs firm. "There's plenty of work to do."
"The election will bring a brighter set of days for Democratic lobbyists," said Dirk Van Dongen, a prominent Republican lobbyist and president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors. "Republican lobbyists will be very, very busy as well."
It's inevitable that GOP firms and GOP lobbyists, who have dominated the downtown scene for years, will no longer be as sought-after as they once were. When all the chairmen on Capitol Hill have (D)'s after their names, being an (R) lobbyist can't serve as much of a come-on for new clients.
"Politics in Washington matters," said Ed Rogers, chairman of the all-GOP lobbying firm Barbour, Griffith & Rogers. "Your political affiliation can give you a tail wind or a head wind." A head wind is clearly what his company is dealing with now.
At the same time, Republicans will not be irrelevant. The executive branch is still in Republican hands. What's more, the Democratic majorities in both the House and Senate are narrow; GOP votes will be needed for almost anything to get done.
That is especially true in the Senate, where 60 votes are required to move major pieces of legislation and many minor ones, too. Democrats can count only 51 votes on their side.
So Republican lobbyists will still be important for anyone who wants to make things happen. Republican lobbyists will be needed even more, in fact, to prevent things from happening. With Democrats setting the legislative agenda, industries of all sorts will have to play defense in ways that they have not had to for years. The assistance of Republicans lobbyists will be key to blocking anti-industry bills, particularly in the Senate.
"The core constituencies of the Democratic Party have pent-up wish lists -- you can start with the AFL-CIO and move on to the trial lawyers," Van Dongen said. "A lot of work will have to be done to stop that stuff."
On the other hand, Democrats will be in charge of Congress (to the extent anyone is ever "in charge" there). That means Democratic lobbyists will be required in large numbers to wheedle their way into the offices of the most influential lawmakers.
"If you're a Democratic lobbyist, you're loving life," said Paul A. Miller, president of the American League of Lobbyists.
Indeed, hiring new Democrats into lobbying companies has become a citywide preoccupation. "We're talking to people; we want good Democrats," said Edward Kutler, a partner at Clark & Weinstock who was a top aide to House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.). "And that's being duplicated around town."
Democratic lobbying firms and Democratic lobbyists have been deluged with offers from potential new clients. "It's been busy," said Steve Ricchetti, whose firm, Ricchetti Inc., is entirely Democratic. "We have had some more calls over the last couple of weeks. We're hoping more people will be interested in us in this environment."
Johnson of Glover Park Group has been experiencing the same phenomenon. "We're getting lots of inquiries, and I assume many of those will result in new projects," he said.
Both Ricchetti and Johnson have been part of all-D operations for years, and have succeeded despite Republican control. Johnson started the Harbour Group fresh out of the Clinton White House in 2001 and developed it into a highly profitable lobbying shop. "We were able to build a growing and thriving practice in those wilderness years," he said.
Ricchetti Inc. has also been in business for six years -- all of them with Republicans on top in both the executive and legislative branches. "And we've done pretty well," he said.
How was that possible? The Democrats-only shops regularly paired themselves with Republican lobbyists and Republican firms to work on issues and campaigns.
"The way the system works is you need people on both sides to get things done," Ricchetti explained. "Organizations and entities are better off having a bipartisan approach to their problem-solving on the Hill."
For that reason, Republican lobbyists are not too worried about Congress's partisan switch. Kutler, the Republican at Clark & Weinstock, acknowledged, "There will be less interest in, and fewer jobs for, Republicans" on K Street. But, he added, "for the nine years that I've been in the firm, our Democrats have been very busy and I suspect our Republicans will be busy as well even under a Democratic Congress."
In fact, no one would be surprised if total fees paid to lobbyists rise next year. "Whenever a new group in authority shows up in town, that's good for business," said Rogers of Barbour Griffith & Rogers. "Democrats having an aggressive agenda can be good for business in the same way that Republicans having an aggressive agenda can be good for business."
J. Steven Hart of Williams & Jensen, a bipartisan lobbying shop, sees a cottage industry blossoming that would concentrate on preparing executives to face congressional investigations and oversight hearings, which are likely to proliferate in the coming months. That sort of work will have to be done with both Democrats and Republicans.
"When you work on issues on the Hill, you have to have a balanced team," said David Urban of American Continental Group, a predominantly Republican lobbying firm. "That balance will shift somewhat; there will be some reduction in the number of folks who will be hired from the Republican side. But there's a lot of work on both sides of the aisle no matter who's in charge."
Jeffrey Birnbaum writes about the intersection of government and business every other Monday. His e-mail address firstname.lastname@example.org.