Rescue's Rush Puts Lobbyists In a Crunch
Thursday, September 25, 2008
Francis Creighton is spending less time lately on his BlackBerry. He has stopped scheduling appointments on Capitol Hill. These days the lobbyist for the Mortgage Bankers Association simply haunts the halls of Congress, loitering outside meeting rooms, looking for people to buttonhole.
Congress is currently attempting the unusual feat of passing major legislation in a single week, spurred by fear of an imminent economic collapse. The types of decisions that often take years of debate are being made in hours. And that has left little time for members of Congress to listen.
The vast array of Washington interest groups are finding themselves hard-pressed to press their cases.
"All the normal stuff, the meetings and the appointments, is gone. We've been forced to take a much more traditional approach where we go to Capitol Hill and we catch people," Creighton said. "In an emergency like this, sometimes you just have to show up outside someone's office and wait."
This is an extraordinary moment on Capitol Hill, lobbyists say. The one thing everyone seems to agree about is the need for speed in passing some version of Treasury Secretary Henry M. Paulson Jr.'s plan to spend $700 billion on buying mortgage-related securities from troubled financial companies.
The problem is that nearly every group has just a couple of things they'd like changed. Some financial firms fear that the federal government, which has until now confronted the crisis with a series of temporary steps, might in its haste make permanent changes with unintended consequences.
Interest groups and their lobbyists tend to talk about themselves as educators. They talk about teaching members of Congress the real implications of legislation, about opening eyes to the back-home consequences. The normal process of educating members involves building a personal relationship, offering support -- money or otherwise -- and then arranging a meeting to explain views.
But there's not a lot of time for meetings right now.
"That's what we usually do, is educating members of Congress," said Bruce Josten of the U.S. Chamber of Congress, which, like the Mortgage Bankers Association, favors passing the Paulson plan with a minimum of modification. "It's just that this time we have one week."
Furthermore, Josten and others say decisions about the bailout are being made by a small group of administration officials and congressional leaders cloistered in meeting rooms.
The most powerful interest groups continue to be heard. The American Bankers Association and other banking groups persuaded the Treasury Department to modify its plan for insuring money-market mutual funds just two days after it was announced. But lobbyists say the bar is higher than usual.
That has led groups such as the Mortgage Bankers Association to focus on outreach to the other members of Congress beyond the small group crafting the agreement. After all, Creighton notes, "it's the other 510 members that are actually going to pass a bill."
Some classic tactics remain potent. Interest groups spend a lot of time encouraging people back home to call and write.
"Whatever a member of Congress does, whatever position they take, we make sure the people back home know whose interests they represented, who they looked out for and who they didn't look out for," said John Taylor, chief executive of the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, which wants Congress to help homeowners avoid foreclosure as part of the bailout plan.
A financial industry lobbyist said he'd stopped in a bunch of offices and was told several times that calls and letters were running 100 to 1 against the plan.