His New Lobbying Job Looks a Lot Like His Old Treasury One

As head of the Financial Services Forum and the Engage China coalition, Robert S. Nichols still represents some of Treasury's interests.
As head of the Financial Services Forum and the Engage China coalition, Robert S. Nichols still represents some of Treasury's interests. (By Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)
By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, May 29, 2007

Lobbyist Robert S. Nichols was, and in many ways still is, a spokesman for the Treasury Department.

In the first half of the Bush administration, Nichols was a Treasury employee and the mouthpiece for then-Treasury secretaries Paul H. O'Neill and John W. Snow.

These days he is president of the Financial Services Forum, a high-profile lobby comprising the chief executives of 20 of the nation's largest financial services companies -- firms such as Citigroup, Goldman Sachs and Morgan Stanley.

So how can he speak for both Treasury and the forum? Technically, he can't. But in practice, it pretty much works out that way.

Nichols also chairs a coalition of lobby groups called Engage China, which, like Treasury, is pushing to open China's massive market to financial products such as auto insurance and 401(k)s. There is extensive cooperation between Treasury and the private coalition, which includes eight big-name organizations.

Lobbying is usually seen as adversarial. In fact, lobbyists often glom onto one or more centers of power and press jointly in the same direction. That's the case here, and the results have been mutually satisfying. Last week, at Treasury's request, China agreed to lift the moratorium on foreign investment in Chinese securities firms.

Engage China was the brainchild of Edward L. Yingling, president of the American Bankers Association. He saw a common interest between Treasury and the financial services industry, so he and Nichols invited several financial services associations to band together. "Treasury could have one meeting with all of us rather than have separate meetings -- a simple, one-stop," he said.

Nichols was a natural choice to lead the coalition. Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr. chaired Nichols's Financial Services Forum before he entered government. And Nichols's own ties to Treasury "didn't hurt," Yingling said.

Some lawmakers do not think it's wise to do business without limitation in China, where labor standards are often lax. But the coalition put some real heft behind Treasury's free-market preferences and clearly made friends that the Bush administration alone could not. The coalition lobbied lawmakers and their aides, distributed research papers and bought ads.

"Treasury was looking to put together private-sector allies to tell real-life stories," said Marc Racicot, president of the American Insurance Association, a coalition member. And Nichols's group fit the bill. "Their efforts are complementary," said Treasury spokeswoman Ann Marie Hauser. "We're certainly glad to see his group saying the same thing we are."

Treasury was especially pleased to see Nichols saying it. "We would work closely," Hauser added, "because we know Rob."

Under Nichols, Engage China has met weekly with Treasury officials, informing them about its many lobbying efforts.

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