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Raising the Debt Ceiling

Ahead of deadlines, a bonanza for special interests

David Gura Oct 25, 2013
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Footsteps echo in the halls of the Hart Senate Office Building as lobbyists pound the pavement — in this case, it’s marble — ahead of two big deadlines.

First up, December 13, when a budget conference committee is supposed to make recommendations on how to keep the government funded past a second deadline – January 15. Without a deal, a new round of automatic spending cuts goes into effect that day.

“The shoe manufacturers of America are going to have a great upsurge in their sales,” jokes Richard Fiesta, a lobbyist for the Alliance for Retired Americans, a group that’s against changes to Social Security and Medicare. “I think anyone who is concerned about issues or does lobbying is going to be in House and Senate offices very frequently and constantly over the next few weeks.”

Take the short walk across Capitol Hill to the Cannon House Office Building, and you’ll find Cristina Martin Firvida, who lobbies for the AARP, one of the most powerful interest groups in Washington. This year so far, the AARP has spent more than $4.5 million on lobbying. It’s launched a seven-figure ad campaign in nineteen states.

“You know, time is the scarcest resource in Washington,” she says. “It’s always a competition for people’s time and their attention. We represent 37 million Americans. We definitely have an advantage when we call up and we say, ‘We’d like 15 minutes of your time.’  We can usually get that.”

Capitol Hill isn’t the only place where lobbyists can connect with lawmakers and staff. Recently at the Washington Convention Center, the Association of the United States Army was holding its annual meeting — complete with a huge floor of exhibits, including tanks and helicopters.

The mood at this year’s conference was different than in past years, because of fears about looming sequestration cuts.

“Whether it’s continuing resolutions, the effects of sequestration, the debt ceiling — all of that is kind of the undercurrent here,” says Gen. Guy Swann (ret.), one of the group’s vice presidents.

The conference is a chance for contractors and the military to tell politicians and policymakers that they’re worried, specifically at the event’s Congressional breakfast, which Swann says is attended by more than 200 Congressional staff.

Farther west of the Capitol is K Street, a famous artery in downtown DC, clogged with lawyers and lobbyists. There you’ll find the Council on Competitiveness, a coalition of CEOs, university presidents, and labor leaders.

“By definition, we don’t lobby,” says the Council’s CEO, Deborah Wince-Smith. The group can’t because it is a nonprofit. “But we do educate.”

Some say that’s a distinction without a difference. Wince-Smith meets with politicians. She testifies on the Hill. Next week, the group will host its annual National Competitiveness Forum.

“We have a number of members from Congress that will be coming to our dinner and the forum, and then senior administration officials as well,” Wince-Smith says.

It’s all part of the expensive education politicians will get ahead of these two big deadlines.

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