Small-time, low-cost lobbying firm goes after the little guys
In the Washington world of million-dollar lobbying contracts and $500 lunch meetings, Paul Kanitra aims lower -- much lower.
The young lobbyist's unusual new venture, Keys to the Capitol, targets small towns, humble associations and others of modest means that can't even consider signing the $10,000-a-month retainers required by many top Washington firms. Instead, Kanitra's company offers contracts starting at $995, month-to-month agreements and prices and other details spelled out on the company's Web site.
The effort, which formally launches Friday after months of preparation, amounts to a bold experiment to remake the idea of Washington lobbying, where fee schedules are opaque and opulence is often viewed as part of the price of doing business.
"I guess you can call it McLobbying," said Kanitra, 30, adding that his inspiration comes from such cost-killers as McDonald's, Wal-Mart and Amazon.com. "Every other industry embraced this kind of model a decade ago or more. The lobbying industry is stagnant and stuck in its ways."
To K Street veterans and good-government advocates, Kanitra's gambit is either a brilliant or a foolhardy attempt to create a populist niche within Washington's $3.5 billion lobbying market. Whether successful or not, the idea underscores rapid changes rocking the profession amid an economic downturn, an expanding government role in health care and other industries and continued attempts to limit the impact of lobbyists on the political process.
Veteran lobbyists say they already face strong pressures to curb rates and better explain costs to clients, who have tighter budgets and easier access to government data through the Internet. Patton Boggs and other lobbying behemoths increasingly offer legislative analyses and other general products for free, hoping to lure paying customers with more specialized services. Many smaller boutique lobbying firms, meanwhile, focus only on one subject area, such as health care or energy.
As a result, many lobbying experts say, even less attention is being paid to humbler citizens, businesses or associations searching for a way to make themselves heard in Washington.
"It is intimidating to try and find a lobbyist, especially if you're outside the Beltway," said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, the nonpartisan advocacy group. "You don't know exactly what the price is, you have to start negotiating over what you want done and you have no idea how to measure their performance. The whole system is tilted against small businesses and others who don't have a lot of money to spend."
Enter Kanitra, an unlikely lobbying entrepreneur whose employers have included a GOP congressman from New Jersey, a locksmithing trade group and a Native American reservation. Kanitra also lost his only political race when he ran for borough council in his home town of Point Pleasant Beach, N.J. The town is one of his company's first clients.
Kanitra's transformation into fledgling lobbyist mogul came while lobbying for Carfax, the Fairfax-based company that markets vehicle history reports. With his top client's blessing, Kanitra joined with friend Jeff Golimowski, a former broadcast journalist, to quietly begin laying the foundation for Keys to the Capitol.
One of the company's first clients was the aptly named Louie Key, national director of the 3,000-member Aircraft Mechanics Fraternal Association of Aurora, Colo. Key was shopping around for a lobbyist to help his union on several federal issues, including persuading lawmakers to tighten oversight of repair stations that use unlicensed mechanics. He found Keys to the Capitol on the Internet.
After about six months, the union leader pronounces himself satisfied, saying the firm helped him land meetings with key lawmakers and secure favorable language in a pending aviation bill.
"We were looking at some of the large lobbying firms, but it was quite cost-prohibitive for an association that didn't have millions of members," he said. "We were quite intrigued that the little guy has a chance to hire a professional firm to be your advocate."
Kanitra and Golimowski still have a long way to go, of course. They have settled into a cramped corner of a rented K Street office suite dominated by doctors, lawyers and advocacy groups. They've acquired nine clients during their "soft launch" phase and aim to rapidly become a full-service lobbying and public-relations firm. Still, the fledgling company billed only $22,000 in the first quarter. "We're just getting started," Kanitra said.
On the other end of K Street, Nick Allard heads the political, lobbying and election law practice at Patton Boggs, which reported lobbying expenditures of $40 million in 2009. "It's going to be hard for a small shop to undercut someone like us because of our size and expertise," Allard said.
Nonetheless, Allard said, he wishes the best of luck to Kanitra and similar entrepreneurs.
"It's just an example of how there are all kinds of innovative new ways to get involved in the public-policy debate," Allard said. "There's less of the face-to-face meeting and more electronic interaction. There's less op-eds and video b-roll, and more blogging and Twittering. The whole business is changing fast."