By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, November 23, 2006
The Democrats' takeover of Congress this month has turned official Washington upside down.
Labor and environmental representatives, once also-rans in congressional influence, are meeting frequently with Capitol Hill's incoming Democratic leaders. Corporations that once boasted about their Republican ties are busily hiring Democratic lobbyists. And industries worried about reprisals from the new Democrats-in-charge, especially the pharmaceutical industry, are sending out woe-is-me memos and hoping their GOP connections will protect them in the crunch.
"Change is in the air," said Melinda Pierce, a senior lobbyist for the Sierra Club. She had never even been invited to meet with Republican House leaders, but since Election Day, Democrats have welcomed her advice.
Dan Danner sees change in the opposite direction. The top lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Business has attended meetings with Republican leaders at least twice a month for the past 12 years. But he has yet to see any of the new Democratic crowd and doesn't expect to anytime soon. "That's a significant difference," he said.
Access is tantamount to influence in Congress. Individuals and organizations with entree to lawmakers in the majority are the ones with the best chance of getting things done. In January, when the 110th Congress convenes, Democrats will control that inside track for the first time since Republicans began their reign on Capitol Hill a dozen years ago.
Companies caught in the Democrats' cross hairs, such as oil and drug firms, are hiring Democratic lobbyists, but they're holding on to their Republican lobbyists. They reason that they will need to persuade Republican lawmakers to block bills they dislike in the Senate, where 60 out of 100 votes are required to pass anything of consequence. Democrats hold only a 51 to 49 majority.
In addition, in a move that is raising ethical questions, some Democratic lobbyists are planning to take congressional staff jobs, attracted by the chance to wield real clout.
Despite this focus on gaining access to authority, Democratic congressional leaders have expressed disdain for their predecessors' fealty to "special interests." That is why they are planning an elaborate assault on lobbyists during their first week in session. Through changes in laws and in House rules, Democrats hope to ban lobbyist-provided gifts and travel to lawmakers and to create an Office of Public Integrity to oversee the disclosures that lobbyists must make about clients and fees.
Yet the biggest change in downtown Washington since the midterm elections Nov. 7 has been the rush of companies and trade associations to retain Democrats. "There are more opportunities for Democrats than there have been in many years," said Anthony T. Podesta, a prominent Democratic lobbyist.
Democratic lobbyists prospected for new clients on the very night last week that House Democrats elected their leaders on an anti-lobbyist platform. Majority Leader Steny H. Hoyer (Md.) and Majority Whip James E. Clyburn (S.C.) were feted on the 10th and ninth floors, respectively, at 101 Constitution Ave. NW, a premier lobbying venue at the foot of Capitol Hill. Some of the city's top firms are in that building, including the lobbying arm of Goldman Sachs, the American Council of Life Insurers, Clark Consulting Federal Policy Group and Van Scoyoc Associates.
Hoyer's political action committee financed his reception in a room routinely used for lobbying and other events, but Clyburn's was paid for by Nelson Mullins Riley & Scarborough LLP, a South Carolina-based law firm that lobbies extensively in Washington on health care and other issues and has offices in that building.
Dozens of lobbyists attended both functions and shuttled from one party to the other. "The elevators were jammed," said Gwen Mellor, a Democrat at the lobbying firm PodestaMattoon, who collected business cards that evening.
Companies' eagerness to hire Democrats began before the elections. Podesta said he had already signed up Wal-Mart and British Petroleum in anticipation of a Democratic victory. Now he is even busier fielding offers from other potential clients. "I've got a fairly full schedule of marketing meetings that are real," he said. "I did some right after the election, and I have four or five set up for next week."
Drug companies are particularly hungry for Democratic help, including the industry's trade association. "We woke up the day after the election to a new world," said Ken Johnson, spokesman for the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America. "We're going to have tough days ahead of us."
A post-election e-mail to executives at the drug company GlaxoSmithKline details just how tough. "We now have fewer allies in the Senate," says the internal memo, obtained by The Washington Post. "Thus, there is greater risk over the next two years that bad amendments will be offered to pending legislation." The company's primary concerns are bills that would allow more imported drugs and would force price competition for drugs bought under Medicare.
The defeat of Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) "creates a big hole we will need to fill," the e-mail says. Sen.-elect Jon Tester (D-Mont.) "is expected to be a problem," it says, and the elevation to the Senate of Rep. Sherrod Brown (D-Ohio) "will strengthen his ability to challenge us."
The e-mail also mentions that Sen. Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) "has worked closely" with the company and that the firm's PAC had supported six Democratic senators who faced reelection. "These relationships should help us moderate proposals offered by Senate Democrats," the e-mail says.
Explaining the memo, GlaxoSmithKline spokeswoman Patricia Seif said: "It's important that we're knowledgeable about the positions of the members of the next Congress."
Even as additional Democratic lobbyists are hired, Republican lobbyists don't expect much falloff in business because GOP lawmakers will be key to stopping legislation that corporations oppose. "You may need to bring other voices to the table as well, but it's not like a light switch being thrown when someone else is in control," said GOP lobbyist Mark Isakowitz of Fierce, Isakowitz & Blalock.
In fact, lobbying overall is likely to increase. "With a closely divided Congress, you're going to have both sides spending more," said Kent Cooper of PoliticalMoneyLine, a nonpartisan research group. "It will be like an arms race."
But not every lobbyist will cash in. A sizable number of Democrats plan to take lower-paying staff jobs in Congress as a way to serve in the government and to exercise the power of the majority for a change. On one important panel, the House Energy and Commerce Committee, both top aides will be ex-lobbyists.
Dennis Fitzgibbons, the panel's incoming chief of staff, has worked for DaimlerChrysler since 2000 and before that was on the committee's staff for 12 years. The panel's new chief counsel, Gregg Rothschild, is also a former congressional aide and was a lobbyist for Verizon for two years.
"This is an historic opportunity," Rothschild said about his return to Capitol Hill. Watchdog groups, however, are concerned about the trend. "I worry that they might not be as tough on the industries they used to work for," said Melanie Sloan of Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington.
But interest groups, in general, are not concerned about the changes the election has brought. "We lost many friends in this election," said Steven C. Anderson, president of the Republican-leaning National Restaurant Association. "But that doesn't mean we can't make new friends, and that's what we'll do."