The new business of lobbying

David Gura Mar 26, 2014

The new business of lobbying

David Gura Mar 26, 2014

What does the word “lobbying” connote? Maybe a smoke-filled room somewhere, or multi-course meals, charged to an expense account. Well, “government affairs professionals,” as they like to call themselves, say the job has changed.

 “I think there is less golf and there are fewer martinis than ever before,” says Dan Bryant, chair of the public policy and government affairs practice group at Covington & Burling.

Still, I persist, arranging to meet Rich Gold, a partner with the firm Holland & Knight, at the Round Robin & Scotch Bar in the Willard Hotel.

According to lore, the term “lobbying” was coined there. Back in the 1870s, Gold’s professional forebears plied President Ulysses S. Grant with cigars and booze. So, as a waiter approaches, I wonder if Gold is going to pick vodka or gin.

“I guess in some ways I am kind of the breakthrough generation,” he says. “I have never had a martini at lunch.”

And the day we met is no exception.

Gold has been lobbying for two decades, and he says the culture has changed.

“There is no walking into a back room anymore, and saying, ‘I need this,’ tapping the table, and getting it done,” Gold explains. The economic downturn also affected lobbying.

“The recession came late to Washington, and the end of 2010, 2011, 2012 were relatively lean years,” he says. “And we’re seeing that in D.C., with some brand-name firms really struggling now.”

Gerry Sikorski is one of Gold’s colleagues. He heads the government section at Holland & Knight. For a decade, he represented Minnesotans in the House of Representatives. We meet in a cafeteria on Capitol Hill – where martinis aren’t on the menu, by the way.

“Lawmaking specialists are less valuable than they once were,” he says.

Sikorski says the federal government is still operating. It is still buying things, regulating industries, and collecting taxes.

“What’s changed is the overarching law making,” Sikorski explains. “Policymaking pieces of it aren’t happening.”

Sikorski says a lobbyist can’t fundamentally reinvent himself, but he can adjust, and many lobbyists have had to. Increasingly, what firms want in a lobbyist is expertise in a particular subject matter.  

According to W. Michael House, the director of Hogan Lovells’ legislative group, there are fewer lobbyists than there used to be.

Lawmakers are spending more time away from Washington. Last year, there were just 159 legislative days, when the House of Representatives was in session. And Congress isn’t passing many bills. In 2013, just 87 became law.  So, a lobbyist like House adjusts.

“We always say Washington goes legislation, regulation, litigation, legislation,” he tells me, noting we are in the regulation stage right now.

Federal agencies are working on financial reform rule writing and the implementation of the Affordable Care Act, and even though the legislative process is moving slowly, it is moving. There are people interested in tax reform, for example. According to House, “that’ll be a two-to-four, maybe six-year process when it’s all said and done, but the smart people get in early.”

More firms are taking what they call a “multidisciplinary approach” to lobbying. Lobbyists work hand in hand with lawyers, and some firms hire strategic communications consultants.

Back on Capitol Hill, I meet Bryant in the Hart Senate Office Building. The relatively light legislative load doesn’t seem to faze him.  

“The need to be explaining your business more, more clearly, and in a more compelling way, has never been more important both in the U.S. and elsewhere,” Bryant says, noting public policy has become “more global.”

Covington & Burling has grown its business overseas. It expanded its office in Brussels, to lobby European governments, and because many companies based in foreign countries want to lobby the U.S.

“I think as long as governments and government officials are making decisions that affect the public and that affect the business community, there will be lobbying,” he says. Although what that involves will continue to change.

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