By Jeffrey H. Birnbaum
Sunday, February 17, 2008
JAY RASULO STOOD IN FRONT OF TWO MASSIVE SCREENS, each projecting his balding visage, and did what he loves to do: sell a big idea. The dapper, diminutive chairman of Walt Disney Parks and Resorts implored 500 tourist industry executives to ask the federal government for an expensive favor.
Speaking in the grand ballroom of the Capital Hilton hotel in downtown Washington on an un-seasonably warm day in January 2006, Rasulo said he believed Congress could be persuaded to fork over a great deal of money for an advertising campaign that would lure millions of foreign tourists to the United States. This "destination marketing" program would enrich his company and others like it, of course. But to make the money flow, he told the luncheon crowd, the industry would have to remake its lobbying capabilities on a man-to-the-moon-like scale.
"We need the equivalent of an Apollo project for destination marketing," Rasulo proclaimed.
More than four years had passed since the attacks of September 11, 2001, had altered the universe for travel. Rasulo, the new chairman of the industry's main lobby, the Travel Industry Association, thought it was time -- past time, in fact -- to win some serious assistance from Uncle Sam. He drove home his point by airing on the theater-size screens a video produced by Disney's sports network, ESPN. Dan Patrick, then a "SportsCenter" anchor, depicted the race for tourist dollars as an Olympic competition. France, Spain and China were winning the race, he said. The United States was lagging behind.
"The U.S. has fallen off the medal stand," Patrick intoned. "You gotta believe they'll get back in the game. The question is, when?"
Rasulo supplied the answer: in roughly a year. Executives from tourism giants such as Marriott, American Express and Hertz buzzed with excitement -- and skepticism. Getting taxpayers to underwrite overseas commercials had been the travel industry's Holy Grail for decades. But the idea had never gotten very far in the councils of government.
Rasulo was undeterred. "One year from today," he boldly predicted, "let's have a successful blueprint for . . . [a] destination-marketing campaign that allows the U.S. to compete in the new world marketplace."
"The good news," he added, "is that it won't be nearly as hard as trying to put a man on the moon."
How wrong he turned out to be.
WHEN PEOPLE THINK OF LOBBYING, they generally envision shadowy operatives and their bought-and-paid-for members of Congress sneaking self-interested giveaways into law. That still happens, of course. Witness the Jack Abramoff scandal. The disgraced lobbyist pleaded guilty in 2006 to arranging all kinds of expensive outings for government officials, including free parties in skyboxes and a golf trip to Scotland on a private jet, in exchange for legislative favors.
But Abramoff was an aberration. Lobbying is much more substantive and out in the open than its ugly caricature. Lobbyists primarily woo lawmakers with facts. Making the case is what effective lobbyists do most and best. They spend the rest of their time persuading lawmakers' constituents to back the same causes, very much in the mode of an electoral campaign. If members of Congress see merit in a position and there is a public outcry in its favor, that's the way they tend to vote. Lobbying these days has a lot of moving parts and is, at its core, more marketing than arm-twisting or favor-swapping. It features not only the lobbyists themselves but ad executives, public relations experts, pollsters, Web site designers and other consultants.
The number of people who make their livings trying to influence the federal government runs into the hundreds of thousands, an enormous figure given the fact that most lobbying is aimed at 535 members of Congress. The exact size of this lobbying army is hard to define, however, because the 30,000 or so people who register to lobby each year do so voluntarily (there is essentially no enforcement of lobbying registration laws), and only those who meet with lawmakers and their staffs directly are required to register at all.
The majority of people who lobby do so indirectly, through tele-marketing, advertising and the like, and none of them have to identify themselves to the public.
James A. Thurber, a professor of government at American University and a lobbying expert, puts the number of lobbyists (including supporting staffs) at about 261,000, twice as many as eight years ago. Fees paid to individual registered lobbyists also have doubled during the Bush administration, to more than $2 billion a year.
The explosion in the size of K Street, the locus of the lobbying industry, is an extension of the growth and reach of government. The ballooning federal budget has its tentacles in every aspect of American life and commerce. No serious industry or interest can function without monitoring, and at least trying to manipulate, Washington's decision makers. The penalty for ignoring the federal government can run into the billions of dollars. Just ask Microsoft. The software giant was hit with an antitrust lawsuit by the Justice Department in the late 1990s and, in 2001, agreed to alter the way it packaged its computer operating system. Before then, it had mostly ignored the nation's capital.
Bad mistake. Chastened by its defeat, Microsoft has built a powerhouse presence in Washington, as have scores of other companies and industries. Lobbyists argue that it's a relatively cheap investment. The Carmen Group, a mid-size lobbying firm, regularly compares its clients' costs with the benefits it says they receive from lobbying. In its latest internal assessment, Carmen said it collected $15 million in fees from about 70 clients and delivered $1.5 billion in assistance -- measured both in benefits received and in burdens avoided -- a return ratio of roughly 1 to 100. Most clients still part with their lobbying dollars grudgingly. But they do part with them, which is why new buildings are going up all the time to accommodate the industry's growth. Want a former senator to guarantee a meeting with a current senator? No problem. Half the senators who leave Congress for the private sector register to lobby. Need to know the history of a tax law and whom best to ask to change it? Easy. At least half a dozen consulting firms are composed of nothing but former congressional tax aides and Treasury Department officials who know as much as, and probably more than, the current people inside.
And why wouldn't ex-lawmakers and aides gravitate to K Street? Lobbying jobs pay at least twice and sometimes three times government salaries. Serving in government is now viewed by many on Capitol Hill as a steppingstone to a lucrative career in bending government to the whims of paying clients. In many ways, lobbying now mimics the government it targets. It has become a bureaucracy, with its own language, its own peculiar ways of doing business and, most important, its own instinct to survive.
Indeed, the last thing any lobbyist wants is to win everything his or her client is seeking. That would mean an end to a retainer, the closing of the feedbag. Success for a lobbyist is not outright victory but, rather, just enough progress to justify the creation of an elaborate and well-funded lobbying apparatus. Even outright failure can underscore the need to lobby harder.
Lobbying is Washington's version of a perpetual motion machine. Once it gets revved up, it rarely stops running. In fact, it tends to grow.
RASULO WAS DETERMINED TO BUILD A MODERN-DAY LOBBYING MACHINE. The old-fashioned methods, with a reliance on access and fundraising, clearly were not working for the travel industry anymore. Back in 2004, he and others in the hospitality business thought they had finally persuaded the federal government to spend $50 million on an advertising campaign abroad. But the $50 million was slashed to $6 million by the Commerce Department and then frittered away on a pilot program in the United Kingdom.
That collapse was sadly typical. Although travel and tourism is one of the nation's largest and most profitable industries, it had what Roger Dow, the new president of the Travel Industry Association, called a "Rodney Dangerfield lobby" in Washington. It never got much respect.
"We're lousy," Rasulo declared. In the mid-1990s, in fact, one of the few federal agencies that then-House Speaker Newt Gingrich was able to eliminate as part of his government-downsizing push was the U.S. Travel and Tourism Administration.
Part of the problem was organizational. The Travel Industry Association was well known for putting together tourism trade shows. The American Hotel & Lodging Association was an expert in franchising. For them, lobbying was not a top priority. The gap was so obvious that a decade earlier some of the industry's most active chief executives had set up a separate lobbying organization called the Travel Business Roundtable.
"The feeling of the CEOs was that there was a void in government affairs," said Jonathan M. Tisch, chief executive of Loews Hotels and chairman of the Roundtable.
But a SWAT team of CEOs was no longer enough to meet the demands of what amounted to "the new lobbying." Having a bunch of heavyweight executives certainly helped gain access to lawmakers and their staffs; what politician would turn down a meeting with someone with thousands of employees and millions of dollars to throw around? Money matters. During the 2006 campaign, the lodging, tourism, gambling and recreation industries donated a total of $20.3 million to federal candidates. That would rank hospitality eighth overall behind the perennially big-spending insurance and health professions, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. But for industries that wanted to be thought of as serious players, campaign contributions were just one component of what had to be a much larger venture.
So, in the fall of 2005, Rasulo assembled a team of people to make a serious assault on Washington. They included Disney executive Leslie Goodman, a former spokeswoman for the Republican National Committee; lobbyist Mitchell Rose, a former aide to Sen. Ted Stevens (R-Alaska); and Rob Gluck, a young but widely traveled former GOP political operative who now worked for Disney as Rasulo's top adviser on public policy issues.
It is widely accepted at Disney -- if not empirically proved -- that one of every 15 visitors to the United States ends up at a Disney park. Leveraging the power of the federal government to bring more tourists from overseas, therefore, would wind up filling the pockets of the Mouse.
After gaining a consensus among his colleagues at Disney, and talking to people at the Travel Industry Association and the Roundtable, Gluck drafted his boss's "Apollo speech." It was meant to be Rasulo's call to arms. A big lobbying push was needed for a big Ask -- the term lobbyists use to describe what they are pleading for from Congress. Rasulo would not say so publicly, but he told colleagues privately that his Ask would be for at least $200 million a year in advertising funds -- four times what the Commerce Department had previously been directed to spend.
BUT RASULO, GLUCK AND THE OTHERS HAD A BIG PROBLEM. What they wanted, while good for Disney and the rest of the travel industry, contradicted a central tenet of federal policy. While they hungered to have more people visit the United States, the government wanted the opposite -- to keep people out, so terrorists and illegal immigrants couldn't sneak into the country. In the wake of the 9/11 attacks, foreigners had to have personal interviews before getting visas to enter the United States, making travel more difficult. Partly as a result of the new visa requirements, the number of inbound visitors fell by 7 percent in 2002 and by 5 percent in 2003, causing thousands of layoffs at airlines and hotels. But most Americans didn't care that much. Hotels and restaurants were still making money. The public was far more worried about keeping undesirables out than making the United States a welcoming destination for foreign tourists. The industry had a second problem, as well. Visits to the United States were beginning to climb again -- on their own, without federal assistance. According to the Commerce Department, the number of international visitors increased 12 percent in 2004. It increased again in 2005, by 7 percent.
The travel industry preferred to emphasize a different, narrower set of statistics. It liked to focus on visitors from overseas rather than all inbound visitors. The reason? Overseas tourists from Europe and Asia, unlike those from Canada and Mexico, tended to stay longer and spend more, two attributes hotels and restaurants coveted. But, unfortunately for travel industry advocates, even the number of visitors from overseas rose 7 percent from 2004 to 2005. Faced with such facts, other executives might have shied away from rushing to the government for help. But not Rasulo. Marketing is marketing, after all. All it takes is finding the right argument and delivering it well. That was especially true in Washington, where incredible victories happened all the time despite the facts -- witness the Bridge to Nowhere in Alaska.
So the Apollo project got underway, with an executive director, Geoffrey Freeman, hired to coordinate its parts: polling, media relations, economic research, brand management, legislative drafting, advertising, coalition building, Web site construction, event production and, of course, regular old face-to-face lobbying.
Freeman was a buddy of Gluck's. They'd worked together as lobbyists for the health insurance industry, which is among the most adept at mobilizing every weapon in lobbying's arsenal to win a legislative fight. In 2002, Gluck and Freeman had been foot soldiers in the health insurers' battle to defeat the Patients' Bill of Rights, which would have provided Americans with more disclosures about their health plans. They won in part by changing the focus of the debate from the actions of health insurers to unfair lawsuits against physicians.
After working for the American Association of Health Plans, Freeman had become a vice president at APCO Worldwide, a public affairs firm, where he helped to run the pharmaceutical industry's program to give away free prescription drugs -- part of a PR campaign to convince lawmakers that they did not need to impose price controls. Spiky-haired and baby-faced at 31, Freeman's long-term ambition was to take command of a major trade association.
He was part of a new breed that did not exist a couple decades ago -- a K Street career lobbyist. His bio declared him to be "an expert in managing complex issue campaigns and developing innovative outreach strategies to increase support among unlikely allies." That gobbledy-gook meant that Freeman specialized in what lobbying had become, an effort that involved more than talking to members of Congress.
One of Freeman's first tasks was to raise money for the lobbying push; the first-year budget would easily exceed $1 million. Rasulo, Tisch and others persuaded their companies to cough up $100,000 each. Other donors of the same amount included InterContinental Hotels Group, Marriott and, later, Anheuser-Busch Cos., owner of several theme parks. Freeman had made a trip to St. Louis to make a personal pitch to then-CEO August Busch III for the assistance.
At first, Freeman's program was called the Partnership for American Travel. But the name didn't sit well with the high-profile executive who was brought in to chair the effort, Stevan D. Porter, president of the Americas division of InterContinental Hotels Group. To make the coalition sound nobler in purpose, Porter and Freeman renamed it the Discover America Partnership. Its agenda was also broadened, because, as Porter candidly disclosed in an interview later, paying for advertising was not really what government was put in place to do.
Indeed, government advertising, Porter warned, "was a non-starter," at least on its own. "For many of us, we don't see that as the role of government," he said. From the start, he recommended adding two smaller proposals that were more fundamental to what government does and that would be easier to accomplish: easing the visa requirements for visitors to the United States and making customs checkpoints at airports friendlier places. Both were already under consideration by the Bush administration.
Freeman readily agreed. The goal in the coming months, the lobbyists said, was to get the machine up and running well enough to eventually get to the Ask -- the $200 million advertising and marketing program. Anything that brazen required extra cover.
In August 2006, Freeman went public with his intentions -- sans the Ask -- in a classic one-pager, the basic mode of communication of Washington lobbyists. Unless it can be written on a single, typewritten page, lobbyists say, the message is too complicated to get far in Congress.
Freeman wrote that the partnership would "run an intensive, political-style campaign" that:
¿ "Educates policymakers and opinion leaders on the power of travel and the American people."
¿ "Highlights the unnecessary obstacles to welcoming more international visitors to the U.S."
¿ "Determines how we can better compete for international visitors."
He hired Oxford Economics, a British research firm, to study what other countries were spending on tourism promotion. RT Strategies -- a Washington polling firm whose clients included Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) -- was retained to survey international travelers to see if their visits to the United States made them think more highly of the country. BKSH & Associates, a Washington lobbying firm, was asked to put together options for how the federal government might foot the bill for the advertising without causing lawmakers to scatter in panic. And Fleishman-Hillard, a Washington public relations firm, would handle the media. Together, the team set out to make the industry look unselfish, even as it prepared to beg for government aid. The lobbyists offered up two basic arguments. One was an old standby: that boosting tourism would be a boon to the U.S. economy. Almost every lobbying campaign asserts that it wants to "create jobs." Second, the partnership was determined to show that tourism was actually an adjunct to U.S. diplomacy.
The Iraq war had seriously damaged America's image abroad, particularly in Europe. Getting more people to come here from overseas and see how nice Americans are in person would reverse those ill feelings, the partnership contended. The partnership even adopted a term for this jujitsu -- public diplomacy.
Freeman provided the consultants a to-do list with 76 items, all with deadlines for completion. Examples of questions to be answered: "What could various increases in U.S. travel do by congressional district (jobs, wages, etc.)?" "What impact does travel and tourism have on other industries?" Fleishman-Hillard pitched journalists to write about the travel industry's woes and what the partnership was trying to do about them. "Here's the hook," read one pitch to a reporter. "America's image abroad is in free fall -- and the travel industry is now pressing the Administration to adopt a counter-intuitive approach to improving (or at least mitigating) America's image problem: i.e. that the best way to improve America's image abroad (and, relatedly, its level of security) is by allowing more (not fewer) foreigners to visit the U.S."
On a hot, cloudy morning in September 2006, members of the lobbying team met in a conference room at the Travel Industry Association to begin work on a lengthy blueprint to convince lawmakers that change was needed. The association's building, on New York Avenue NW, was, appropriately, a converted Greyhound Bus Line terminal. "We will make a full-on charge toward public diplomacy," Freeman said. But until that message was accepted as true, he said, the time would not be right to seek a publicly funded advertising budget. "If we went ahead with our core Ask today," he said, "we'd run into a brick wall."
"You also have this debate on Fortress America going on," one of the consultants pointed out, warning that the immigration controversy was pushing Congress to erect more barriers to entry, not fewer.
"We absolutely have to overcome Fortress America," agreed Freeman, who suggested creating a Web site with "horror stories about getting into the U.S." The lobbying team argued over how to raise the $200 million without relying on an annual appropriation from Congress; a permanent, government-imposed funding mechanism would be ideal. BKSH, led by travel industry lobbyist Charles L. Merin, had quietly compiled a crazy quilt of alternatives and put them into a memo. These included a national travel lottery ("dismissed because of the likely strong opposition from the anti-gambling interests"); a rental car tax ("dismissed because of the difficulty in enacting any kind of tax increase regardless of political control of Congress"); and even the issuance of "a commemorative coin or series of coins." This last one was not dismissed out of hand.
One thing everyone agreed on: The travel industry did not want to pay for the ads itself.
THE PARTNERSHIP'S PUBLIC DEBUT CAME ON SEPTEMBER 13, 2006. On that sunny Wednesday, with the Capitol dome as a backdrop, Freeman filled a makeshift stage with travel industry executives and paraded a succession of industry bigwigs and friendly members of Congress in front of the cameras. Seven cameras, to be exact, which is a healthy showing for a lobbying event. Stories ran on CNN, Fox News Channel and al-Jazeera. First onstage was Rep. William D. Delahunt (D-Mass.), one of the many subcommittee chairmen who can, and regularly do, push measures beneficial to tourism. "I come from part of the world that has a profound interest in travel and tourism," said Delahunt, whose district includes Cape Cod. (Before his speech, the Travel Industry Association provided Delahunt with research that showed travel-related businesses employed 14,300 people in his district and produced $1.4 billion in expenditures annually. A Delahunt aide standing in the crowd pointed to the research and said, "That will be my Bible.") The industry, Delahunt said, is "essential to the U.S.," yet "America's image in the world is at its lowest ebb." Nonetheless, he said, "this is a very exciting moment," because travel and tourism could begin to make up lost ground and improve America's image with foreigners.
Rasulo then took the stage and began to sell. Hard. Improving foreign travel to the United States, he said, would produce "hundreds of thousands of new jobs and billions in new growth." He repeated the need for an Apollo project to get travel back on its feet and "win hearts and minds" overseas.
Tisch also spoke, arguing that more tourism does not mean less security at the nation's borders. "The more visitors we have," he said, "the stronger our economy is." And the stronger our economy, he said, the safer we are as a nation. The event generated lots of media coverage: Articles produced by Reuters and the Associated Press appeared in hundreds of newspapers around the world, and stories ran in USA Today and the New York Times. The partnership's slick new Web site also was a major hit. Thousands of people checked out the bright red, white and blue site, and bloggers pounced on it, making the link between diplomacy and travel. Perhaps even more important, congressional aides started to check out the site regularly and use it to keep track of the lobbying campaign.
After the speeches, hundreds of hotel owners and restaurateurs from across the country fanned out to plead the industry's case to members of Congress in what's known as a Lobby Day. The day culminated with industry-sponsored dinners to honor -- and court -- 35 congressional delegations.
Rep. Nancy Pelosi, the Democrat from California who would become House speaker five months later, was one of many luminaries to drop by the California dinner that night at Charlie Palmer Steak near the Capitol. TV monitors scrolled the partnership's motto, "10 Million More Visitors, 1 Billion More Positive Stories." And even Pelosi parroted the industry line, saying that travel provided a unique opportunity to bolster public diplomacy. At a similar Missouri dinner, held in a private room at Union Station, a poster listed the industry's goals for the year. They included easing entry into the United States through smoother visa procedures and improving "America's public image abroad." There was no mention anywhere of $200 million in federally funded "destination marketing."
And that was a good thing. Not everyone who attended thought that allocating federal money for an overseas advertising campaign was warranted, regardless of the funding mechanism used. Asked by a reporter if he could imagine congressional approval of funding to promote U.S. tourism abroad, Missouri Rep. Roy Blunt, the House's third-ranking Republican, said, "Oh, I don't know about that" and added, "I don't know that you'd get money in the budget that would stay there for advertising."
Peter Herschend, co-owner of Herschend Family Entertainment of Branson, Mo., a country music Mecca in the Ozark Mountains that attracts millions of visitors each year, pressed Blunt to reconsider. "We have an opportunity to help shape the image of America. We need to have tourism as a tool of policy. There's no company that can sell the image of America."
Blunt was polite but noncommittal. "I understand what you're saying," he said, arms folded defensively across his chest.
The partnership was on track to spend $1.3 million through the end of 2006. Freeman hoped to double the group's budget in 2007. "It sounds like a lot," he said, "but if you can put an issue on the agenda, then it's really a bargain."
The budget included a salary of less than $200,000 a year for Freeman -- a healthy wage in other lines of work, but below average in Freeman's.
In October 2006, to make extra sure that his issue would be talked about, Freeman secured the services of a surprise advocate -- the kind of person known in the trade as a nontraditional ally or a third-party validator. He hired one of the last people you would ever expect to support the industry's position: Tom Ridge, the man who was once in charge of protecting the nation from terrorist attacks. Freeman figured, who better to provide cover for a group that wanted a more open U.S. border than a former secretary of homeland security? After a couple meetings, Freeman retained Ridge for about $20,000 a month, a standard sum for top-tier consultants.
For that amount, Ridge agreed to help produce a study that would urge easier entry into the United States and to promote the partnership in interviews with the media. In an interview, Ridge said he was happy to participate because he believed that security should be balanced with commerce. "We cannot be isolationists," he said. "America needs to be connected to the world." Brandishing a big name such as Ridge demonstrated the kind of seriousness that Freeman knew could be translated into something tangible: financial support for more lobbying. In mid-November, he went prospecting for more donations. He had been in touch with Rocco Laterzo, a senior vice president of American Express. They met in a 33rd-floor conference room overlooking Ground Zero in Manhattan.
Freeman walked Laterzo through the logic behind the open-door-policy effort, emphasizing Ridge's participation. "That made him feel very comfortable," Freeman said. Freeman then laid out the partnership's approach. Laterzo liked it all, and he committed $100,000. "Travel is an opportunity rather than a vulnerability," Freeman declared triumphantly after he made the sale.
At the end of November, Freeman flew to Los Angeles to brief the Travel Industry Association board. He said the legislative blueprint would be finished on time -- the anniversary of Rasulo's Apollo speech. He also said that, thanks to the lobbying effort, "we are beginning to see a change in the environment." President Bush had even begun talking up one of the partnership's objectives -- the need for a faster and more secure visa system for overseas travelers.
Freeman made a side trip to the "Seven Dwarfs building" at Disney headquarters in Burbank, Calif., where he and Gluck detailed the partnership's progress for Rasulo. That review was less upbeat. Freeman remembers telling Rasulo that he was worried about using the phrase "destination marketing" in connection with the Ask. "Anything with the word 'marketing' in Washington is looked on poorly. And if you put a big number on it, it will look like a big handout," Freeman warned. The lobbyists also had not yet settled on a way to fund a $200 million advertising effort, which was sure to be a sticking point.
But Rasulo said he wanted to unveil the entire program, including the Ask.
In December, Freeman and his team labored to hammer the blueprint into shape and also to line up congressional backers. Chief among the lawmakers they courted was Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-N.D.), a Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation subcommittee chairman with tourism in his purview. Five days before Christmas, Freeman and several other lobbyists met with Dorgan in an ornate room near the Senate floor. According to Freeman and others at the meeting, Freeman explained that they had developed a multimillion-dollar campaign to help "give you cover," and he added: "While you're walking the halls of Congress, we'll be working the media. We'll be working opinion leaders. We'll also be doing research. We'll be making this issue front and center."
Dorgan was impressed and promised to make the issue his own. But an old friend of Dorgan's, Greg Farmer, who attended the meeting, injected some skepticism. Farmer had headed the U.S. Travel and Tourism Administration at the Commerce Department that Gingrich had axed. He noted that the partnership's plan still had a significant hole: its funding mechanism. He also noted how difficult it always had been to get the government behind an advertising campaign. "I still have the bruises," Farmer said.
Two days later, the lobbying team held one of its regular conference calls to discuss its progress. The Dorgan meeting was declared a great success, but there was disagreement on how to move forward. Should the lobbyists sit tight and wait for Dorgan to take the lead on legislation, or should they start drafting the bill they wanted and get it introduced, or in congressional slang "dropped," on the day of Rasulo's speech?
After some back and forth, they agreed to wait for Dorgan. But until then, one of the consultants urged, "we ought to be spoon-feeding what we want" to key Senate aides.
By the time the holidays were over, the lobbying team had produced a 56-page legislative blueprint that laid out the partnership's three goals: visa reform, making airports more welcoming and "travel promotion," a more lawmaker-friendly phrase the team had decided to substitute for "destination marketing." Rather than choosing a single way to pay for the $200 million advertising campaign, the consultants presented a menu of three options that Congress could enact. One was a $5 airline departure tax that was already causing consternation among U.S. carriers. The other two were a special bond issued by the government and a so-called visa waiver fee, which would be paid by foreigners from South Korea, Greece and other countries who didn't need visas to visit the United States.
One rule of lobbying is to never surprise a member of Congress. So a couple weeks before the official rollout of the blueprint, Rasulo came to Washington to present it informally to selected lawmakers. It was embraced warmly by most of them, including Dorgan. But Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) did not buy the executive's argument that more foreigners should be allowed into the country without personal interviews at U.S. consulates.
Rasulo did his best to convince her other-wise. He said that no industry is more committed to security than the travel industry. After all, tourism would shut down if visitors did not feel safe coming here. In the end, Rasulo agreed to work with Feinstein's staff, especially over the issue of increasing the number of visa-waiver countries.
During Rasulo's meeting with Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez, the secretary expressed reservations about mandating a government-run ad campaign. A reform of the visa problems should be finished first, Gutierrez said, before any kind of commercials should even be considered.
The airline industry turned out to be more than skeptical. It became a fierce opponent. Two days after Rasulo's meeting with Gutierrez, Freeman sat down with Jim May, the bear-like president of the Air Transport Association, to explain the partnership's program and lay out the three funding options. May, however, clearly focused on the one option that would impact his clients: the airline departure fee.
May politely told Freeman that he did not like that idea. In truth, he hated it, and began to inform executives in his industry that they would have to do something to stop it.
The partnership was clearly taking its lumps. But Freeman was philosophical about the opposition he was encountering. Internecine warfare was commonplace on K Street, and at least now the travel industry was becoming muscular enough to take part in one of those fights. That, in its own peculiar way, was a measure of the lobbying campaign's success.
BY JANUARY 31, 2007, THE BLUEPRINT WAS COMPLETED, Rasulo's speech was prepared, and the conflict with the airlines had grown sharper. It all came together on that cold, gray day.
The State of the Travel Industry Lunch and a news conference were scheduled to be held deep in the bowels of the sprawling Ronald Reagan Building -- so deep that Fleishman-Hillard had to station interns every 20 yards or so to direct reporters and others to the right spot.
At the end of the gantlet, in a spare, nondescript room, the partnership offered Rasulo, Tisch and others to the cameras to explain the travel industry plan. "This is America's challenge," Rasulo declared, to be both "more secure" and"more welcoming." Afterward, Rasulo continued the rhetoric before 500 industry executives in the building's large and echoey auditorium.
"A year ago, with many of you in attendance, I described our challenge as an Apollo project for the industry. Now, a year later, we have created the plan -- and I have good news: It ain't rocket science. It's common sense. When it comes to security and ease of travel, people sometimes mistakenly believe we must choose one or the other -- that we can't have both. Ladies and gentleman, we can do both, and the blueprint will show Congress how we can do it. The plan we now have in hand is the single most important document our industry has ever created. Its fulfillment is the single most important action we can undertake as an industry. Never have we had such a plan, and never have we been in such need of one."
The applause was thunderous, but the afterglow didn't last long. At a hearing before the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee -- usually friendly territory for the partnership -- members asked the travel industry lobbyists to present their proposal and then turned to the airlines' Jim May for his response.
May agreed that the visa and customs process should be improved, but he blasted the blueprint's suggestion of a $5 fee for all travelers, including Americans, leaving the United States by air. "Why would we want to charge passengers more at the same time we are trying to get more of them to visit the U.S.? That just does not make any sense," he said.
A few weeks later, Freeman and May sat down again. By that time, it was amply clear that May's view had prevailed on Capitol Hill. But, far from being bitter about his defeat, Freeman had only words of admiration for his adversary. "He knows his stuff," Freeman said of May. "He is an extremely effective lobbyist." From Freeman, that was high praise indeed.
Like a war, legislation never goes as planned. And that was the case with the partnership's non-advertising proposals. With a nod from the Bush administration, streamlined visa and customs procedures began to pop up in various bills on Capitol Hill.
To keep track, the partnership began publishing progress lists. Each twist and turn was dutifully chronicled and then publicized. Industry lobbyists kept in close contact with the lawmakers who championed each element. But the primary objective -- the advertising program -- remained stalled.
By spring, despite a lack of progress on the Ask, Freeman's focus broadened to the larger question of the lobbying machine itself. He was thinking about how to keep it chugging along now that it had been established.
Last April, he gave a PowerPoint presentation to the Travel Industry Association board that detailed the partnership's accomplishments: producing the blueprint, testifying at congressional hearings, finding useful allies, generating more than 1,000 news stories and building a "lobbying presence."
The trick for the future, Freeman said, was to keep going with a "brand and [an] agenda." In other words, the partnership would become the association's permanent lobbying arm.
The assembled executives created a task force to study the proposition, aware that adopting the proposal would mean a lot more money being spent on Washington advocacy -- perhaps $3 million a year. Not coincidently, the arrangement, if adopted, would also secure a permanent spot for Freeman at the association as a senior vice president. Meanwhile, the partnership continued to press for action on Capitol Hill. In mid-June, Freeman trotted out Tom Ridge to help unveil a new study that showed that promoting visits to the United States would more than pay for itself in increased economic activity. A boost in overseas travel to the United States by nearly 1.6 million visitors a year would yield $8 billion in spending and $850 million in additional federal tax revenue, the study concluded.
"Our borders are the intersection of security and prosperity," Ridge told reporters at the National Press Club. Ridge also embraced the funding mechanism that the partnership had finally settled on: a $10 fee that foreigners would have to pay to waive the need for a visa to enter the United States. This option had two advantages: It did not affect U.S. taxpayers, and it did not arouse the ire of the airline industry. Legislation was moving through Congress that would expand the number of countries whose citizens did not have to obtain a visa to come to America, but fees could still be imposed on their travel. The result was another deluge of publicity.
By the end of June, the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee approved the advertising legislation that the partnership had long sought, though it required the travel industry to kick in half the money for promoting itself abroad. The measure, a compromise reluctantly accepted by the lobbyists called the Travel Promotion Act of 2007, would ask the travel industry to provide up to $100 million itself, matched by $100 million in federal funds drawn from the visa-waiver fee. A companion piece was introduced in the House by Rep. Delahunt of Massachusetts and, in a surprise, Rep. Blunt of Missouri. (The fact that Branson is in Blunt's district obviously did not hurt.) But that's as far as the legislation would get. The reason? Conservatives in the Senate led by South Carolina Republican Jim DeMint saw the advertising program as an unwarranted giveaway to wealthy corporations. "It's not a legitimate federal role," DeMint said.
The Bush administration was also opposed. "The Department believes that tourism promotion activities should be financed and undertaken by the private sector and, where they desire, by states and local governments," a deputy commerce secretary wrote to Congress.
Undaunted, the partnership flooded Capitol Hill with e-mails from travel executives. Although the list of congressional co-sponsors grew as a result, the Ask was essentially a dud.
That fact, however, did nothing to deter the Travel Industry Association's board from moving ahead with more funding for the lobbying effort.
At the end of September, Rasulo gave yet another speech about his pet project, this time in the cavernous Washington Convention Center, to yet another contingent of travel execs. "We are in the red zone," Rasulo enthused. "We are very close to scoring a touchdown."
The same day, the association's board formally adopted the plan to expand its lobbying. Funding would increase to $3 million a year. And, yes, eventually Freeman was named the new senior vice president for public affairs and put in charge of it all. He also got a raise.
After the board's vote, Freeman and Gluck did not celebrate wildly. They merely exchanged a quick handshake. The reason, Gluck said, was that they both knew "there was, and is, lots of work left to do." A lobbying machine, once it gets started, cannot stop.
Jeffrey H. Birnbaum covers the intersection of business and politics for The Post. He can be reached at KStreet@washpost.com. He will be fielding questions and comments about this article Tuesday at 1 p.m.