It wasn't long ago that the Business Roundtable lost its way.

Once Washington's premier corporate lobbying group, the Roundtable fell on hard times in the late 1990s. After a dues hike, its membership, which consists entirely of big-company chief executives, dropped to 130 from 190. Its members got a tongue-lashing from high-level Republicans for failing to back their pro-business agenda vigorously. The organization didn't even make the top 30 in a Fortune magazine survey that ranked which lobbying groups wielded the most clout in the capital.

"Clearly they had slipped from where they used to be years ago," says Donald A. Danner, chief lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Business and one of the District's most respected business advocates.

Now the Roundtable has bounced back. In 2001, it replaced its longtime president, Samuel L. Maury, with a younger, more energetic Washington hand, John J. Castellani. Under Castellani's guidance, the group has once again become a lead warrior on the battlefield of economic policy. It has regained the respect of lawmakers and lobbyists by concentrating its capital -- political and financial -- on core issues such as tax cuts and free trade. And its voice actually matters.

"The new leadership at the Roundtable has done a magnificent job of getting itself better organized and better focused," says Rep. John A. Boehner (Ohio), a GOP leader and frequent liaison to the business community. "It's more effective as a result."

Danner agrees. "John [Castellani] is very 'out there' and doing a great job," he says. "He really has rejuvenated the Business Roundtable."

The organization is about to take another step toward recovery. After 17 years, the Roundtable is getting a new executive director. The current No. 2 staffer, Patricia Hanahan Engman, plans to retire. Replacing her, effective Sept. 1, will be Larry Burton, a 47-year-old public relations and lobbying executive for BP America who had previously worked in Ronald Reagan's budget office and for senior Republican appropriators in both the House and Senate.

In an interview, Burton says he intends to take a higher profile than his publicity-shy predecessor and spend 60 percent of his time pushing Roundtable positions publicly -- with lawmakers, executive branch officials and voters around the country. "I hope to be visible," he says. Which is exactly what the new Roundtable is all about.

When it was founded 32 years ago, the Roundtable was a force to be reckoned with. Its leaders were activist chief executives who came to Washington often, cared deeply about establishing relationships here and pressed their policy positions hard. In the 1970s, it was instrumental in defeating a slew of pro-labor laws with the help of such industry giants as Irving S. Shapiro of DuPont Co., Reginald Jones of General Electric Co., John D. Harper of Alcoa Inc., and Roger Blough of U.S. Steel Corp.

Eventually Washington changed, but the Roundtable did not. The demise of Congress's seniority system, the decline of political parties and the rise of political-action committees converted once-sheep-like members of Congress into independent thinkers. No longer could a small group of aggressive corporate chieftains march into the offices of a few key legislators and make things happen.

Chief executives also seemed less interested in even trying. In the 1980s, they began to lose their taste for the capital's byzantine ways and chose to spend time improving their own operations rather than struggling to rewrite laws. "We went through a generation of CEOs who just were not that focused on their relationship with Washington and preferred to work on their bottom lines," says lobbyist Anne L. Wexler, who was President Jimmy Carter's link to business in the late 1970s.

Castellani had no choice but to drag the Roundtable into the modern era. Its once-quiet, backroom maneuverings had to be augmented by the more public-directed methods of contemporary lobbying. "You have to yell to be heard in the political process," Castellani says, and that's more or less what he did.

To help pass President Bush's dividend tax relief plan, the Roundtable persuaded several of its member companies to contact their shareholders and ask them to urge their congressmen to vote "yes." To help the president win "fast-track" authority to approve free-trade treaties, the Roundtable placed ads and op-eds in the local newspapers of legislators whose votes were key to passage. And to promote a new prescription drug program for Medicare, it underwrote and distributed to lawmakers a district-by-district analysis of how many people would benefit directly from the law.

Through it all, Castellani also managed to increase chief executives' personal visits to Washington. He was lucky enough to have found himself working with chief executives who, for a change, didn't mind coming to Washington and, in fact, saw real benefits in doing so. First among these was the Roundtable's current chairman, Henry A. McKinnell of Pfizer Inc., a drug company that worries a lot about what Washington does.

At the same time, Castellani narrowed the number of issues that his organization made a stand on. Even after adding homeland security to the group's agenda, he slashed the number of issue task forces that the Roundtable convenes to nine from 13. He even got rid of a construction task force that dealt with the labor issue that was at the heart of why the Roundtable came to be in the first place.

"One of the criticisms of the Roundtable was that we swatted at any fly that flew into our room and that we were very defensive," says Johanna I. Schneider, who is in charge of the Roundtable's external affairs. "We made a choice not to be so defensive and try to set our own course."

That effort has clearly paid off. The Roundtable's membership has grown in recent years and stands at 158 companies, which is as big as it wants to get. More important, it has brought back into the fold such major corporate players as Ford Motor Co., Hewlett Packard Co. and International Business Machines Corp., which had left the organization during the bad old days. The combined revenue of its member companies approaches $4 trillion a year, which would make it larger than the gross domestic products of every country except Japan and the United States.

"They clearly have rolled up their sleeves and gone to work," says R. Bruce Josten, executive vice president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "They're focusing on what they can do well."

The Roundtable, says Wexler, "is back."

And on Thursday

In my last column, I wrote about how common it has become for legislators and lobbyists to meet regularly and in large groups. I found a lobbyist-lawmaker gathering on every day of the week except Thursday, though I said I was sure that there must be one then, too.

I was right. Roll Call's Brody Mullins kindly points out that every Thursday morning, the staff director of the Senate Republican Policy Committee convenes an elite group of lobbyists on Capitol Hill. Their rendezvous is the successor to the "Thursday Group," the granddaddy of all such mutual-back-scratching sessions, which started in the House in 1994.

One of the Thursday group's most recently invited participants (about a year ago) is none other than the Roundtable's Castellani. There aren't many more potent signs of influence than that.

Jeffrey Birnbaum writes about the intersection of government and business every other Monday. His e-mail address is kstreetconfidential@washpost.com.

Larry Burton, the Business Roundtable's next executive director, intends to be visible.