Tax-Cut Supporters Ready for 'World Series of Lobbying'

By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Tuesday, October 2, 2007

Charlie Rangel, get ready to rumble.

Rangel, who chairs the House Ways and Means Committee, has promised a tax bill so large that it will be "the mother of all reforms."

Those are fighting words to Washington's business lobbyists. To them, "reform" means "tax increase." So they're teeing up the mother of all coalitions.

Dozens of the most carnivorous corporate trade groups in town are dusting off an old alliance called the Tax Relief Coalition and preparing to do battle with the New York Democrat.

The coalition was created in February 2001, soon after President Bush was inaugurated. Its purpose was to help him move his tax cut through Congress, and it succeeded with flying colors.

The coalition was the brainchild of Karl Rove, then Bush's political maestro. Rove called Dirk Van Dongen, president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, and asked him to put the alliance together. Van Dongen, a longtime Republican loyalist and fundraiser, readily agreed. Their initial discussion was over burgers at the Hay Adams Hotel across from the White House.

Rove is now gone from the scene, of course, but Van Dongen, 64, is still very much around. He and Jade C. West, the wholesalers' senior vice president, are preparing with the other association chiefs to protect what they worked so hard to enact six years ago.

"We don't know exactly what Rangel will propose," Van Dongen said, "but there's enough conversation out there to be concerned, and to respond."

The best guess is that Rangel, with the backing of other Democrats, will try to repeal Bush's extensive tax cuts and maybe impose a surtax on upper-income individuals -- both efforts that Van Dongen's coalition is determined to stop.

Besides the wholesalers, the coalition's mainstays include the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Business Roundtable, the National Federation of Independent Business, the National Restaurant Association, the National Association of Manufacturers and the Associated General Contractors of America.

But that's not all. The coalition has 1,000 members that together represent 1.8 million businesses. Its budget, before it even asks for anything beyond its basic dues, is $450,000. It can certainly raise a ton more than that if it needs to.

Its main strength, though, is the calls, letters and visits it can generate to every member of Congress at a moment's notice.

"Every association brings soldiers," Van Dongen said. "We've got plenty of muscle back home in the states and districts."

The last time the coalition went to war was to permanently repeal the estate tax; it fell short by just a few votes. It does not intend to fail this time.

"The real trick is to keep them from dividing and conquering us," Van Dongen said, referring to lawmakers. "It's not a natural act for the business community to hang together."

Van Dongen knows this from long experience; he's been with the wholesalers for 40 years. He spent all those years in the same K Street office building -- until last week. He moved to G Street, but only because he had to; the old building was about to be bulldozed.

Not many insiders give Rangel much of a chance, with or without the coalition's opposition. Yet the prospect of another serious legislative struggle excites Van Dongen. Indeed, his coalition's initials, TRC, are the same as those of the group that was the vehicle for his greatest victory in Washington. The old Tax Reform Coalition, which he also helped lead, was instrumental in passing the Tax Reform Act of 1986, the biggest rewrite of the U.S. income tax code in history.

"Major tax bills are the World Series of lobbying as far as I'm concerned," Van Dongen said. And pretty soon he will be going to bat again.

Small Change for Lobbyists

David Bonior, national manager for John Edwards's presidential campaign, is offering a new anti-lobbyist come-on to attract donations. "A Dime A Day Keeps The Lobbyists Away" was the pitch he e-mailed to, among others, several Washington lobbyists, who helpfully forwarded the missive to me.

Their unanimous verdict: It's gonna take a lot more than that.

Moonlighting Lobbyist of the Week

Susan B. Perry is a familiar face in the halls of Congress. She lobbies for the American Public Transportation Association and, before that, was the longtime chief advocate for the American Bus Association.

But Perry also has a secret life. At every home game of the Washington Nationals baseball team, she works as an usher for the best seats in the house, the "Diamond Boxes" directly behind home plate.

Perry, who grew up with a baseball-crazed father and older brother in West Orange, N.J., loves the game and asked to be an usher as soon as baseball returned to the capital three years ago. She got her wish and then some. She was put in charge of RFK Stadium's highest rollers and also gets to sit near -- and swap stories with -- the baseball scouts who keep tabs on every game.

As you might imagine, being a lobbyist is good preparation for being an usher. "Lobbying is people relations and providing information to people, and so is ushering," Perry said. "There's also a good bit of hand-holding involved."

This year Perry made it to all 81 home games -- a noteworthy accomplishment -- and plans to return for another season next year.

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