It's a Good Time to Be The Hill's Mr. Ethanol

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, May 15, 2007

Photo crews are not chasing Robert Dinneen down the hall, but, for a lobbyist, he's a very popular guy.

Lately he has been testifying before various congressional committees about once a week, which beats any Cabinet officer or rock star you can think of. And lawmakers are constantly buttonholing him, not the other way around.

Dinneen, 47, is president of the Renewable Fuels Association, the chief promoter of the capital's new hot commodity -- ethanol, the leading clean-fuel alternative to oil.

Congress is falling over itself to find ways to help Dinneen's members produce more ethanol, which is a flammable grain-alcohol fuel additive. The combination of $3-a-gallon gasoline, a desire to be less dependent on foreign oil sources and rising fears about global warming have made the hunt for a low-polluting, homegrown energy source a near obsession on Capitol Hill.

More than 145 bills have been introduced in Congress this year to help boost ethanol production. No other subject has garnered that much attention.

The focus has kept Dinneen busier than ever in his two-decade career with the association. "This is a real exciting time," he said. "It's been pretty phenomenal."

Phenomenal is a great distance from his early days in the game. When Dinneen left the Hill in 1987 after serving as an aide to then-Rep. Robert Torricelli (D-N.J.), ethanol was a backwater issue supported almost entirely by a few Farm Belt lawmakers eager to find an extra market for corn.

Dinneen learned about the job opening for the association's lone lobbyist -- the other two staffers were the receptionist and the president -- from a friend at the National Corn Growers Association. Dinneen remembers his friend telling him: "Bob, I don't know if this industry will be around five years from now, but we'll have a good time working on it."

The industry not only survived, but it eventually thrived, thanks in large measure to hefty federal subsidies that the association advocated. Dinneen took over as the association's president in 2000, and his staff is at six and growing.

The industry is growing even faster. Eighty-one new ethanol plants are under construction, a trend that in a couple years will double the output of ethanol. Ethanol is no longer made solely from corn, nor does it come just from the Midwest. Plants have also sprouted in California, Texas and even New York, where a shuttered Miller Brewing plant is being retrofitted for the purpose.

President Bush put ethanol on the map by highlighting it in his State of the Union address. Presidential candidates, eager to court voters in the corn state of Iowa, have also pushed hard. Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.), who once opposed federal support for the biofuel, reversed herself and endorsed bigger ethanol incentives than she previously voted against. Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.), who is still an ethanol-subsidy skeptic, enthuses about the need for more production.

Lawmakers who are not running for president love ethanol, too, and have made its chief spokesman sort of a celebrity. "I've been doing this for 20 years," Dinneen said. "It does seem odd to be an overnight success."

An Ignored Agency on the Move

The Federal Election Commission has long been considered one of Washington's most toothless agencies. The campaign finance watchdog was all but designed to deadlock because its six commissioners are evenly divided between Republicans and Democrats.

Recently things got worse. For the first time in its 32-year history, none of its commissioners -- and at the moment there are only five -- has been confirmed by the Senate for the term he or she is serving. They are all either holdovers or recess appointments.

Nonetheless, Chairman Robert D. Lenhard argues that the commission has been more activist -- and effective -- than ever. Deadlocks almost never happen, he said. In fact, the commission over the past year has been levying record-setting penalties for campaign-finance wrongdoing and speeding up its investigations into those infractions. "The work product of the agency is very, very strong," Lenhard said.

Maybe it should be ignored more often.

Update: Saudis Still in Arrears

More than two months ago, Michael J. Petruzzello, managing partner of Qorvis Communications, told me that the $3 million that Saudi Arabia owed his company from last year would be "resolved imminently." He was wrong.

"They've been paying down their obligations," Petruzzello said, but they are not nearly finished. He declined to be specific. He also owned up to that fact that the Saudis owed Qorvis, a fast-growing PR firm, a total of nearly $8 million, which included $5 million for subcontractors.

"They will be fully current very shortly," he said. We'll see.

Separately, House Democrats have failed to meet their own timetable for passing an ethics and lobbying bill. Last month, a spokesman for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) predicted that the House would vote on the legislation in late April or early May. Now Pelosi's office says a vote is likely later this month. The vote has been promised since February.

Last night the leadership was working on details. A requirement on lobbyists to disclose campaign contributions they bundle together may not stay in the bill, though disclosure advocates hope to push it separately. [Story, A5.]

Moonlighting Lobbyist of the Week

David A. Starr talks real fast, not because he's a lobbyist but because he is a professional coffee roaster on the side. He drinks about eight cups of his specialty brew a day.

Starr, a 48-year-old principal at the lobbying law firm Williams & Jensen, is an expert in tax and pension law. His clients include Brooks Brothers and the YWCA Pension Fund. But in recent years he and his wife, Amy Starr, a Securities and Exchange Commission lawyer, developed a passion for self-roasted coffee and this year they made it into a business, Beanetics Coffee Roasters in Annandale.

"We can roast 100 pounds of coffee -- from green bean to bag -- in an hour," Starr said proudly. And yes, the beans, whether Costa Rican (his top seller) or Ethiopian, start off green before they are heated in the store's roaster, which patrons can see through a window.

Starr began 10 years ago with a tabletop roaster in his kitchen and progressed to a bigger roaster in his garage. But his friends wanted more coffee than his hobby could provide them, so in February he opened shop not far from his home.

"I scoot over on the way into work to check in," Starr said, "and also have a great cup of coffee."

(If you know of another lobbyist with an interesting sideline, let me know.)

A Surprising Paper Cut

Juanita D. Duggan resigned yesterday as president of the American Forest & Paper Association after just six months in the job. Insiders say she was caught in the crossfire between forest land owners and paper manufacturers. She was previously president of the Wine and Spirits Wholesalers of America.

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