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Lobbyists Make Themselves at Home on the Hill

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, July 24, 2007

What do you get for the lobbyist who has everything?

A townhouse on Capitol Hill, of course.

Nothing satisfies as many needs: quick access to lawmakers' offices, a nearby rest stop for constituents brought in to lobby for the day, inexpensive sleeping quarters for clients and, most of all, a place to hold fundraising events, which have become nightly occurrences.

From a place on the Hill, a lobbyist can easily shower a lawmaker with thousands of dollars in campaign cash, and the lawmaker would not have to miss a single vote. That's the main reason Capitol Hill way stations and offices have multiplied in recent years.

It's that mantra of real estate: location, location, location. Good- government types may not like it, but that's the way it is.

"There's been a proliferation of these townhouses," said lobbyist John Winburn, who co-owns one. "And they're principally used for fundraising."

In the past few years alone, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the nation's largest business lobby, and Fluor Corp. have opened offices on what amounts to Congress's extended campus. Lots of others have been there for years and more would love to follow their lead.

But finding real estate is not easy. Neighbors are not enthralled with the trend and several of the lobbyists' buildings must house full-time residents to meet zoning standards.

Most groups have had to settle for locations a few blocks farther out or, by all appearances, just off the Hill in downtown D.C. Office buildings within sight of the Capitol, such as 101 Constitution Ave. NW and 400 North Capitol St. NW, are filled with as many lobby shops as they can hold. The National Association of Realtors built a glass tower in that vicinity not long ago.

But the choicest spots are right there in the Capitol Hill neighborhood -- and an odd assortment of organizations occupies them. On the Senate side, there's the Sheet Metal and Air Conditioning Contractors' National Association. On the House side, the National Rural Electric Cooperative Association has space above some shops on Pennsylvania Avenue SE.

Both FedEx and UPS have townhouses, which are, appropriately, on opposite sides of the Capitol. The Associated General Contractors of America is among a large cluster of lobbyists near the House office buildings, a mere "nine iron to the Cannon Building," says Stephen E. Sandherr, the group's chief executive.

Patton Boggs and Williams & Jensen, both long-established lobbying firms, have had outposts on the Hill for years. The National Association of Wheat Growers has been near the Senate for about 30 years. The American Trucking Association was also a pioneer there and is expanding. Like most of the others, it routinely provides rooms for fundraisers put on by other groups, as well as holding its own events.

The Credit Union National Association, following the example of Florida House (the state's home on the Hill), opened Credit Union House six years ago. Unfortunately, its inaugural event was scheduled for Sept. 11, 2001, and the festivities were upended.

Lobbyist Frederick H. Graefe opened his law offices on the Senate side a year ago and has enjoyed its proximity to his work and its convenience for members of Congress. He is also happy to be able to bring his chocolate Labrador, Reilly, to work every day -- something he couldn't do when he had space downtown.

J. Steven Hart allows clients to stay at Williams & Jensen's townhouse; it's a good way to save money. The place is also a kind of oasis at which lobbyists and others can kick back and smoke cigars -- something no longer allowed in restaurants.

But the townhouses really pay back their investment during the week before the quarterly deadline for campaign finance reports. Then, every available room is booked for fundraisers, and "finding space is like trying to find a hotel room the week before a political convention," said David Marventano of Fluor. That's when he's most glad to be a short walk away.

Tobacco Smolders Over Tax Hike

Something strange happened in Congress the other day. The Senate Finance Committee approved a 61-cent-per-pack tax increase on cigarettes, and the Capitol didn't sag under the weight of angry lobbyists and their allies.

Insiders speculated that no group could legitimately argue that tobacco taxes should not be raised to pay for an expansion of a children's health program -- the combination that passed.

But that logic turned out to be both reasonable and wrong. Tobacco interests are not taking the prospect of a big tax increase lying down. "We're sharing our positions with legislators," said Bill Phelps, spokesman for Philip Morris USA. Translation: Its lobbyists are fanning out all over the capital to fight back.

Tobacco firms are also enlisting tobacco growers, wholesalers and retailers to urge their lawmakers to defeat the extra tax. In addition, Philip Morris is posting signs at stores where tobacco is sold that invite smokers to complain.

The signs ask people to go to http://StopTheFETIncrease.com (FET stands for federal excise tax). "Smokers are being targeted for a 156% tax hike," the site says.

So far, not many lawmakers from non-tobacco states are expressing much outrage. President Bush, however, is. And his opposition is what has probably given tobacco lobbyists the confidence to stay so relatively low key.

Hire of the Week

Democrats -- at least those fresh off Capitol Hill -- are in short supply. Those who have chosen to stay in Congress are no longer easily tempted to become lobbyists. They are there for the excitement of working in the majority.

Hence, the newest trend in K Street hiring: the crosstown move. Already-entrenched Democratic lobbyists are changing jobs at an accelerated pace.

The latest prominent job switcher is James "Jamie" Houton, 40, who for the past seven years was the chief Democratic lobbyist in the Senate for Microsoft. The lobbyist, notable for his Boston accent, has jumped to Elmendorf Strategies, the fast-growing Democratic lobbying shop run by Steven A. Elmendorf, who was an aide to former congressman Richard A. Gephardt (D-Mo.).

Before going downtown, Houton was a top staffer to Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.) and managed the Democratic leadership's outreach to the high-tech industry. Houton will lobby the Senate for Elmendorf.

If you have a nominee for this new feature -- Hire of the Week -- please e-mail it to kstreet@washpost.com.

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