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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.

Bankers Join Merger Trend

It's incredible how thinly industries can slice themselves into trade associations. For example, for years there's been the venerable American Bankers Association (ABA) and the more homespun America's Community Bankers.

But not for long. Yesterday, the $80 million ABA agreed to combine with the nearly $20 million community bankers group to form a new organization that will retain the American Bankers Association name. The community bankers group is mostly made up of savings-and-loan and mutual savings institutions, which these days are largely indistinguishable from other banks.

That's a big reason the two almost merged eight years ago and finally will get around to it in November. The combined organization will be headed by Edward L. Yingling of the ABA. The community bankers' Diane Casey-Landry will be chief operating officer.

Trade groups have been merging a lot lately, but nowhere more conspicuously than in financial services, where the industry itself has seen a major merger mania. Infamously, the lobby groups for stock and bond sellers recently merged into the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, and for a brief, unhappy time had two chief executives -- one from each predecessor group.

Yingling said the bankers groups are getting together to cut down on duplication (eliminating separate annual conventions, for instance) and to use the savings to invest in training for executives about ever-changing banking regulations.

Although the groups fought pitched battles in the 1980s, lately they have been allies on policy, another reason staying apart did not make sense. Besides, the groups' state-based affiliates had already merged in 23 states, including California, Texas and Florida.

Typical. Washington is always the last to act.

Private Equity's Public Push

The four-month-old Private Equity Council, the lobby for the private equity industry, has barely had enough time to set up its offices. In fact, it's still in a temporary space and has only four employees.

But it has already reaped the whirlwind. Lawmakers, angered by the industry's multibillion-dollar payouts, are proposing to get rid of a key tax break that allows the beneficiaries of these huge pools of cash to pay income taxes at low capital gains rates.

To combat this threat, the council has retained veteran Democratic tax lobbyists Robert J. Leonard of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld and Jon Talisman of Capitol Tax Partners. Also hired for their Democratic connections are Norman Brownstein of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck and Jeffrey Peck of Johnson, Madigan, Peck, Boland & Stewart. More expert help is on the way. They'll need it.

Moonlighter of the Week

Congressman-turned-lobbyist Gerald E. Sikorski (D-Minn.) spends his weekdays advocating for the likes of Thomson Corp. and Blue Cross and Blue Shield of Minnesota. On weekends, he sculpts.

He has painstakingly crafted hawks, owls and other animals out of marble, all with the idea of creating beauty as well as some inner peace -- neither of which he gets much of on K Street.

"You put your hand on a piece of stone, and you can feel something," the 59-year-old Holland & Knight partner said. "If you carve it, it becomes something; there's a spirit of the matter there."

If that sounds Zen-like, it is. Sikorski has been offered many thousands of dollars for his artwork, but he has refused to sell. "If it changes over into that dynamic, what happens is you calculate all the hours and effort you put into it and it cheapens the thing," he said. Instead, he gives his sculptures away, mostly to relatives, and revels in the process of creation free of deadlines and mercenary concerns.

Working outdoors for 10 hours at a stretch, he is able to concentrate on something besides his day job. "It gives you a chance to clear your head," he said. "The hamster stops spinning in a circle."

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