Lobbyist Built a Career On Unconventional Wisdom

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Getting fired is not usually a good thing. Except if you're William T. Archey.

In 1994, Archey was booted from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, where he was senior vice president for policy, a high-ranking job. At the time he was under fierce attack by Republicans -- the Chamber's closest allies -- for even considering an embrace of President Bill Clinton's health-care plan.

You might think that would be a black mark for a lobbyist. In fact, Archey got three job offers almost immediately and by year's end was happily ensconced in the prominent position he still holds: chief executive of AeA, then called the American Electronics Association, which represents tech companies from chipmakers to software publishers.

As he looks back now, preparing for his planned retirement next year at age 65, Archey is convinced that a lot of the perceived wisdom about Washington -- including the need to pick a partisan side and stick with it -- is simply wrong, in the same way that his own calamity turned out to be a godsend.

One mistake, he said, is to accept as true that only campaign contributions yield lobbying victories. AeA does not donate a penny to anyone. Instead, it has made its name by dispensing information, an even more precious commodity in this ever more complicated age.

Some of this information is politically motivated, of course. Archey initiated an annual report that details the tech industry's impact state by state. Any lawmaker -- Republican or Democrat -- can quickly find how many voters tech firms employ in his state and how big an impact the companies have on the local economy. (Plenty of other trade groups, hungry for congressional backers, have since copied AeA.)

But AeA also transformed itself into a nonpartisan source of analysis on hot issues. Data-starved congressional aides from both parties have long relied on AeA's four-page summaries to learn the basics about arcane yet important topics such as free-trade agreements and tiered Internet pricing proposals.

In addition, the organization has strived to put those issues into a broader societal context. It was among the first to lump under the rubric of competitiveness its pleas for more funding for math and science education and basic research.

Democrats in Congress, after reading AeA's proposals, adopted them as part of their "innovation agenda," which is moving -- with some Republican support -- toward approval on Capitol Hill.

Clearly, Archey thinks it's a mistake to see Washington as little more than a battleground for warring parties. Before he entered the trade association game, he held a series of high-level positions in both Republican and Democratic administrations. He learned a lesson then that he still lives by, despite his run-in with the Chamber: The most effective way to get things done is to find a middle ground.

"The best policy comes when you have to make some compromises," he said. "Things ultimately do get decided by the center."

That belief got him canned once. But it might also be the secret to a long career in the capital.

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