Congress may be out of town, but that's just when Direct Impact, the big, Alexandria-based grass-roots lobbying firm, likes to make its pitch to lawmakers.

With the help of the Navy League, the Burson-Marsteller subsidiary has created a network of 300 "seapower ambassadors," many of them retired admirals, who are hitting the letter-writing and civic club circuit in 40 states this summer to decry the shrinking Navy.

The program is being financed by the American Shipbuilding Association, which would like nothing better than for Congress to double the number of ships being built for the Navy. The association already has managed to get a provision in the House-Senate conference report for the fiscal year 2000 defense authorization bill that would require Defense Secretary William S. Cohen to issue a detailed report on shipbuilding plans by Feb. 1.

A Direct Impact spokesman said the shipbuilders got religion after they invited Rep. Gene Taylor (D-Miss.) to speak this spring. Taylor told them "they need to get off their collective fannies" if they want a bigger Navy. "I don't see a vocal constituency out there saying let's fix it and let's fix it now," Taylor declared.

The seapower ambassador program was launched soon after. The effort has been endorsed by six former chiefs of naval operations, including Elmo R. Zumwalt, who recently dispatched a two-page missive to Cohen warning that the Navy is getting so small it is "stressing our Bluejackets to the breaking point!" Yesterday, Zumwalt added in an interview, "The problem is we're just not building ships fast enough."

The program, which is being run by Bill McIntyre, a Direct Impact senior vice president, is a good fit for the lobbying firm, which earned its sea legs by helping Newport News Shipbuilding Inc. win more nuclear submarine contracts in the mid-1990s. With the Alexandria firm's help, the Virginia shipyard stunned Connecticut-based Electric Boat by getting a number of New England-based firms that make submarine components to support its bid for more contracts.

D.C. Branch? There's a Concept

Tom Kelly, a former lobbyist for the National Restaurant Association and the American Insurance Association, has returned to Washington to open an office for Concept: Group Cos., a Palm Springs, Calif.-based lobbying firm that specializes in representing firms in the hotel, restaurant, gaming and travel industries.

Foreigners Are Wiring the U.S.

Wiley, Rein & Fielding, the Washington law firm best known for its communications law practice, is in the midst of a major trade fight. The firm, which has represented the U.S. steel wire rod industry for years, is pressing President Clinton to impose trade sanctions on the import of foreign steel rods.

More than 30 countries are exporting the rods into the United States, overwhelming the domestic industry, says Eileen P. Bradner, who is working the issue along with former representative James C. Slattery (D-Kan.), a fellow Wiley Rein lawyer. The firm's clients include Birmingham Steel Corp. of Birmingham, Northwest Steel and Wire Co. of Sterling, Ill., Connecticut Steel Corp. of Wallingford, Conn., Co-Steel Raritan of Perth Amboy, N.J., and Keystone Consolidated Industries of Dallas. Clinton is expected to decide the case by Sept. 25. "We are hoping for a favorable decision," said Bradner.

The Revolving Door

Howard M. Schloss, formerly at the Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee and more recently assistant secretary for public affairs at the Treasury Department, is off to be vice president for public affairs at the New York Stock Exchange.

Chief postal inspector Kenneth J. Hunter has been tapped by the Council of Better Business Bureaus to be its new president and chief executive officer. The council is the Arlington-based umbrella organization that represents local Better Business Bureaus. Hunter, who takes office in October, will replace the retiring James L. Bast, who has run the council for five years.

Two New Pilot Lights

Two new staff members are arriving at the Natural Gas Supply Association, which was rocked earlier this year by former president Nicholas J. Bush's admission that he had embezzled $2.8 million from the group. Patricia Wilson Jagtiani, an aide to Federal Energy Regulatory Commission Chairman James J. Hoecker, will become director of regulatory affairs in September; Laurie Maudlin Cramer, a former senior vice president at the Hawthorn Group, took over as NGSA director of communications on Monday. "The staff members being replaced are in no way connected to the Nicholas Bush embezzlement charges," the gas association said.

She Was Late Arriving but It Wasn't Her Fault

At last, American Airlines lobbyist Sylvia A. De Leon, a lawyer with Akin, Gump, Strauss, Hauer & Feld, has won her long-sought reappointment to the revamped Amtrak board of directors. The Senate confirmed her in late July after a hold on her nomination was lifted.

McAllister's e-mail address is mcallisteb@washpost.com