The news that House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio), a K Street ally, would resign, leaving a leadership vacuum that has no clear end, exacerbated a mounting frustration felt by industry and pro-business lobbyists toward some congressional Republicans, a group they once considered steadfast allies.
“Industry wants to know there’s a Congress they can work with. They’re concerned that’s not happening,” said a Democratic lobbyist representing corporations and trade groups, who asked not to be named to preserve professional relationships.
“Businesses are always going to be more comfortable with Republicans because they favor lower taxes and less regulation, which is what businesses want. But businesses also want Congress to function, so little by little…if this doesn’t change at some point soon, there will become frustration.”
Like much of Washington, lobbyists were exasperated and bewildered by the dramatic unraveling of Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s (R-Calif.) once-assumed rise to the House speakership. The Freedom Caucus, a group of 40 House conservatives, managed to disrupt the process of selecting a new speaker but also, by association, the billion-dollar lobbying industry that depends on Congress’ ability to operate in a timely and organized fashion.
“I’d be surprised if you’re talking to anyone who’s not looking on in horror,” said Brian Worth, a former McCarthy and Boehner aide who is now the chief lobbyist for Uber. “I don’t know who that consensus candidate is, who’d appease the 20 or 30 guys who forced this. Other than [Paul] Ryan, I don’t know who else could be that kind of unifier. This is bad, very bad.”
The absence of a clear House leader and potentially an opening at the top of the powerful House Ways and Means Committee, which Ryan (R-Wis.) would vacate if he runs for speaker, poses short and long-term challenges for K Street and its corporate clients.
“Businesses and people downtown are looking at the situation the same way most Americans are, which is, at the moment, it’s a bit of a dysfunctional mess,” said Dave Schnittger, a lobbyist at Squire Patton Boggs and former longtime deputy chief of staff to Boehner.
“Certainty about who you need to be talking to in certain positions is somewhat of a necessity for working with the Hill. When there’s a question mark involving the speakership or a major committee chairmanship, or all of the above, it’s inevitably going to impact the way you go about your work, and make things harder.”
The vacancies in House leadership also have a longer-term domino effect. When Congress is bogged down trying to resolve internal political crises, normal legislating takes a backseat.
“When you have to lurch from crisis-to-crisis, there’s no oxygen left for any other items,” said former Eric Cantor aide John Murray, a consultant at Monument Policy Group who works with financial services firms. “A good portion of the business community’s agenda has fallen victim to that reality over the past few years.”
Business groups downplayed any dissatisfaction with Congress.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce — which along with the National Association of Manufacturers, Boeing and G.E. is leading a fierce lobbying battle to renew Ex-Im — says it remains committed to working with lawmakers.
A spokeswoman for the group pointed to the passage of two measures it says were achieved in largely due to lawmakers they helped elect: the “doc fix” Medicare bill and the passage of the trade promotion authority. She added that tax reform is complex and that the chamber never expected it to be accomplished in a year.
“The Chamber will always work with the Congress that we’ve got to advance business community priorities,” the Chamber said in a statement. “We’re not going to agree with either party 100 percent of the time. However, we will continue to work to elect pro-business candidates who have the courage to govern when they get to Washington.”