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November 15, 2015

Tribal Lobbying Is Booming After Abramoff Scandal

Abramoff waits to leave  after entering a plea agreement on three felony charges at Prettyman Federal Courthouse in Washington, D.C., in 2006. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Abramoff waits to leave Prettyman Federal Courthouse in Washington, D.C., after entering a plea agreement on three felony charges in 2006. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The Gila River Indian Community, an Arizona tribe that operates casinos near Phoenix wants to stop another tribe from opening a rival enterprise. So Gila River mobilized its lobbyists at Washington’s biggest firm.

The community paid Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld $2.3 million for federal lobbying so far this year. As a Gila-backed bill moved through the committee process in the House, the Tohono O’odham Nation bolstered its own K Street presence, nearly doubling the amount spent on federal lobbying, which is about $2 million so far this year. Full story

February 24, 2015

K Street Donors Make Early White House Picks | K Street Files

They’re not billionaire industrialists poised to bankroll millions in the 2016 campaign, but K Street still matters to the crop of aspiring presidential candidates.

Lobbyists are tapping long-established networks of donors to help their favored White House contenders rack up early money.

Full story

February 10, 2015

K Street Files: McBee Shop Rebuilding Under Wiley Rein

Rob Chamberlin never took his ex-boss, Steve McBee, for the type who would sell his K Street outfit to a big, multinational advertising conglomerate.

Turns out, he was right — sort of.

But he could not have predicted what happened to the firm late last year.

Like his other 60 colleagues, Chamberlin was shocked when McBee announced his departure from the shop he founded to take the chief executive job at energy company NRG Home. Law firm Wiley Rein bought McBee Strategic Consulting and amid the chaos nearly 20 people hit the exits, including McBee’s wife, Jennifer Noland, and several high-level lobbyists.

The drama is over now, according to Chamberlin and others who remain at McBee. Their message: McBee is open for business, clients are signing up and the firm is making senior-level hires as it rebuilds under the new ownership. Full story

January 27, 2015

K Street Files: Realtors Rack Up Record Lobby Tab

If you’re looking to pick a fight with the National Association of Realtors, the group just may have a coded message into its recent lobbying disclosures: Watch out.

The realtors spent the second most of any lobbying group — $55 million — in 2014 when legislation to overhaul the nation’s housing finance system took on some momentum before fizzling out amid congressional gridlock. Full story

By Kate Ackley Posted at 1:02 p.m.
K Street Files

January 13, 2015

K Street Files: Some Ex-Members Lining Up Gigs

Former Senator Saxby Chambliss has already found a job on K Street. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Former Senator Saxby Chambliss has already found a job on K Street. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

It took hardly any time at all for just-retired Sen. Saxby Chambliss, R-Ga.

Ditto for ex-Reps. Lee Terry, R-Neb., and Bill Owens, D-N.Y.

The trio of former lawmakers, part of the club of about 70 members who left Capitol Hill earlier this month at the close of the 113thCongress, have already landed gigs on K Street. Full story

December 23, 2014

K Street Files: Steve McBee on Leaving His Shop (Updated)

(CQ Roll Call File Photo)

(CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Updated Dec. 26, 11:40 a.m. | Steve McBee never was your typical K Street character.

So perhaps it should not have come as a shock when the 46-year-old founder of McBee Strategic took a most unconventional career path, ditching his business to become CEO of NRG Home, a $6 billion energy concern with 5,000 employees. Full story

November 19, 2014

K Street Files: Democratic Lobbyists Still Have Value

Pryor failed in his re-election bid, but as a moderate Democrat could land a top job on K Street, Ackley writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Pryor failed in his re-election bid, but as a moderate Democrat could land a top job on K Street, Ackley writes. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

The Democrats may have taken a pummeling in this month’s elections, but K Street still sees value in hiring them.

A disproportionate number of Democrats from Capitol Hill, soon-to-be ex-lawmakers and aides alike, are looking for jobs. With the Senate flipping to GOP control and House Republicans getting an even bigger margin, Democrats lose committee slots and clout. As a result, the K Street job market may not be as robust for the party’s denizens, as Republicans have seen a rise in their value downtown.

But there is still demand for Democrats.

If House and Senate GOP leaders are to pass some of the lobbying community’s signature legislative measures, such as fast-track trade authority or an extension of the Export-Import Bank, they will need to woo sufficient Democrats to make up for their Republican defectors, who often hail from the tea party wing. Full story

October 29, 2014

K Street Files: Is That a Lobbyist Knocking on Your Door?

Lobbyists are hitting the campaign trail this fall, including for Senator Thad Cochran, R-Miss. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Lobbyists are hitting the campaign trail this fall, including for Senator Thad Cochran, R-Miss. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

With the midterm elections one week away, K Street lobbyists are taking their powers of persuasion to the campaign trail. Their target audience: voters.

Though they may be more accustomed to trolling the halls of the Capitol or getting stuck on client conference calls discussing legislative strategy, over the next few days, lobbyists plan to employ a different set of skills that include walking door-to-door, holding campaign signs or driving voters to the pools in major contests around the country.

“I’m ready not to sleep and to wear very comfortable shoes and go wherever they need me,” said Dawn Levy O’Donnell, who runs the firm D Squared Tax Strategies.

O’Donnell is heading to Colorado to help the campaign of Sen. Mark Udall, a Democrat who is in a tough race against GOP Rep. Cory Gardner. She went to college at the University of Colorado’s Boulder campus and considers the state a home.

Full story

October 14, 2014

Will All the GOP Lobbyists Please Stand Up?

Kimberley Fritts may not be the Podesta Group’s typical public persona. That role most often belongs to Democratic donor and firm founder Tony Podesta.

But with the GOP poised to make gains in the Senate — perhaps big enough to capture control of the chamber — Fritts, a former Republican staffer who usually stays behind the scenes, recently sat in her downtown corner office and touted the shop’s ties to her party.

“We’ve got a very strong bench of Republicans here that I’m really proud of,” said Fritts, Podesta Group’s CEO. Full story

July 16, 2014

Who Has Time for Legislating Anyway? | K Street Files

Jeb Hensarling, chairman of the House Financial Services panel, was in a rush to recess a lengthy markup so he and the other lawmakers could make it across the street to the Capitol for evening floor votes.

But Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., pleaded for a few seconds to squeeze in his comments before the gavel.

Even though Hensarling reconvened the markup just after those votes, Scott had somewhere else to be. “Thank you, because I have a fundraiser I’ve got to get to right after,” Scott said in a moment of candor that sent the room into surprised laughter.

Scott’s spokesman Michael Andel noted in an email that members are in town about 2.5 days per week. “That’s not a lot of time to do much of anything,” Andel said.

The episode on June 10 offered a rare glimpse into the reality that members of Congress of both parties face, especially in an election year: the constant tension between raising money to keep their jobs and actually doing their jobs.

The dash for cash is nothing new to elective office, but with the increasing costs of campaigns and the ever-bigger potential threats of outside money flooding into races, lawmakers over schedule their short work weeks in D.C. to hit up stakeholders and lobbyists from dawn until dark.

“There are only so many hours in a day, and when you have to spend an increasing amount of those asking people for cash, something has to give,” said Adam Smith, spokesman for Public Campaign, which advocates for public financing of elections. “And what gives, I think, is the job you’re elected to do.”

The Bipartisan Policy Center’s Commission on Political Reform recently released a report that seemed to conclude much the same. Led by ex-lawmakers-turned-K-Steeters such as Tom Daschle and Trent Lott, the commission’s June 24 report found members “spend too much time fundraising, which crowds out the time for legislating.”

“The commission decries the inordinate amount of time that members of Congress spend raising money and worry about the effects of such fundraising on the legislative process,” the report stated. “In particular, we fear that the need to raise ever-increasing amounts of campaign funds is crowding out the time that members have to engage in legislating and government oversight, the job they were sent to Washington to perform.”

The bipartisan group recommended Congress set up a task force styled after the 9/11 commission to make policy suggestions, and urged Congress to pass legislation requiring more disclosure of outside political money. The group also suggested Congress impose new restrictions on leadership political action committees, including limiting the funds to political, not personal, activities.

As much as lawmakers may complain, many of them privately, about the crush of pressure to raise money and the need to fork over donations to colleagues to help them advance in party or committee leadership in a sort of pay-to-play process, Congress seems to have little appetite to revamp the system — at least for now.

But the current way makes for a grueling schedule. House Republicans alone, for example, have 10 fundraisers scheduled on Wednesday, while House Democrats have at least five on the docket, according to party committee lists emailed among lobbyists. Senators also have several events on the docket.

That day, lobbyists and lawmakers can start things off with a breakfast at Bullfeathers benefiting Rep. Chris Gibson, R-N.Y. And they could end the day in a bipartisan way with a reception for Rep. Richard E. Neal, D-Mass., at Legal Seafoods in D.C.

To say nothing of the legislative work taking place on the Capitol campus.

Of course, the overbooked lawmakers and unpredictable congressional calendar can make life plenty difficult for lobbyists, too, who are trying to oblige members’ requests to hold fundraisers.

“Many of these events are scheduled weeks or months in advance, and you just don’t know what the voting or committee schedule will be like,” said Michael Herson, who runs American Defense International and hosts fundraisers. If an event is on the Hill, lawmakers usually can pop in, even briefly, between votes or committee meetings. But when the event is across town, the guest of honor may not make it at all.

But even the best of plans could be easily waylaid. “Votes could blow up the entire event,” Herson said.

Kate Ackley is a staff writer at CQ Roll Call who keeps tabs on the influence industry.

June 26, 2014

Coffees, Cocktails for Cantor Staffers

Cantor, center, gave his staff nearly two months to find jobs before he officially leaves leadership on July 31. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Cantor, center, gave his staff nearly two months to find jobs before he officially leaves leadership on July 31. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Reality has set in for aides to outgoing House Majority Leader Eric Cantor, and it looks something like this: coffee and cocktails with headhunters, lobbyists, chiefs of staff, old friends and business contacts. In short, anyone who can help in the job search.

The Virginia Republican’s leadership aides will be out of work by the end of July, setting off a job-search effort that Cantor and his chief of staff, Steve Stombres, have helped spearhead since Cantor lost on June 10.

“Obviously there has been a lot more coffee drunk and lunches eaten than before that primary,” K Street recruiter Ivan Adler of the McCormick Group told CQ Roll Call. “No doubt that people are now reaching out to their librarians and bartenders and rabbis to seek advice.”

Finding a new job can be grueling, even with a plum résumé, the help of a high-profile boss and a vast network of Washington insiders. Full story

June 13, 2014

Unemployment Extension Cause Has Invisible Lobby | K Street Files

Unemployment extension advocates aren't as visible as other campaigns. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Unemployment extension lobbyists aren’t as visible — even though 3 million are affected. (CQ Roll Call File Photo)

Walk through the Capitol South Metro station and you’ll pass SoftBank ads that festoon the walls — but you won’t see a campaign for the 3 million people hoping Congress will pass an unemployment insurance extension.

Business groups and most big-money lobbies that typically place such advertising to influence the people working in the Capitol either oppose extending jobless benefits, or they won’t take a position.

That leaves the unemployment extension lobbying mostly to people who are out of work themselves, along with an unusual collection of Washington allies: unions, religious organizations, anti-poverty and mental health groups. Full story

May 27, 2014

Big Business’ Summer Agenda | K Street Files

Big business’ summer agenda on Capitol Hill reads like one big do-over.

The biggest pre-election priorities that stand a chance of passage include the reauthorization of the Export-Import Bank, extensions of popular tax credits and a terrorism insurance program.

While all three have achieved bipartisan support previously, don’t expect anything to happen without controversy now.

Take the Ex-Im Bank, for example. Though Democrats and many Republicans say they support its reauthorization, conservative Republicans have made killing it a major focus this year.

“It’s a huge priority for the chamber,” Christopher Wenk, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s senior director of international policy, said about the Ex-Im Bank.

Wenk spent the weekend in Mobile, Ala., discussing the issue with the local chamber there and he is helping organize a fly-in of out-of-town advocates to Senate offices next month, following a recent lobby day focused on House members.

The Ex-Im Bank, the official export credit agency of the U.S. which helps businesses secure financing for exports, has become a flash point for conservative Republicans who argue it amounts to a corporate welfare program. Its charter expires on Sept. 30.

House Financial Services Chairman Jeb Hensarling, R-Texas, recently blasted Ex-Im and called on his fellow Republicans to reject the bank’s reauthorization.

“There is probably no better poster child of the Washington insider economy and corporate welfare than the Export-Import Bank,” Hensarling said in a speech at The Heritage Foundation. “Its demise would clearly be one of the few achievable victories for the Main Street competitive economy left in this Congress. I believe it is a defining issue for our party and our movement.”

But other conservative leaders feel differently. Speaker John A. Boehner, by contrast, has called the bank’s reauthorization a top priority. So it is an example of divisions within the Republican Party separating pro-business from more populist conservatives.

Wenk noted the rough environment and party split. “Yes, there are some Republicans that don’t support Ex-Im, but there are a lot of Republicans that do,” he said. “The chamber, for our members, Ex-Im is a critical tool in helping our exporters.”

Wenk added that June and July will be “crunch time” in lobbying for the bank.

“We are doing lots of things to build some momentum, to build some pressure,” he said. It’s a big priority, too, for the National Association of Manufacturers, said the group’s top trade lobbyist Linda Dempsey. “We certainly view it as a must do this year and can do,” she said.

The NAM also is lobbying hard for an extension of popular tax breaks such as one for companies doing research and development and another credit known as “bonus depreciation,” which allows businesses to immediately deduct 50 percent of the cost of new machinery.

“Our immediate goal is to revive those tax breaks and get them extended until we can get to broader tax reform,” said NAM’s Dorothy Coleman.

The insurance industry and a broad coalition of the companies that carry insurance are pressing lawmakers to renew the Terrorism Risk Insurance Act well before it expires at year’s end.

Tom Santos, vice president of federal affairs at the American Insurance Association, said the past three weeks have been pivotal in terms of building support for the legislation.

“I think we’ll start to see momentum rolling,” he said.

Banking Chairman Tim Johnson of South Dakota and the panel’s ranking Republican Michael D. Crapo of Idaho have called it a priority. The panel recently concluded work on a massive bill to overhaul the nation’s housing finance system, so lobbyists believe the TRIA will take center stage at the committee soon.

“This is an economic issue, more than a campaign issue,” Santos said. Policy holders can’t get new insurance policies, he said, because of the uncertainty surrounding the TRIA. “With each passing month, the economic disruptions become more significant.”

Still, even if most members of Congress want to move these items, the limited number of legislative days and the focus on the coming elections has some K Street sources worried about the timing.

One GOP lobbyist, who would only speak on the condition of anonymity, said he believes it will be difficult for Republicans in the House to take a vote on the Ex-Im Bank because of the divisions within the party.

“I think this is something the base is paying attention to,” said this lobbyist, who supports Ex-Im. Perhaps lawmakers, freed of the burdens of their re-election campaigns, would vote to reauthorize Ex-Im’s charter in a lame-duck session.

But because that’s a gamble K Street doesn’t want to take, expect a major push over the next few weeks.

Kate Ackley is a staff writer at CQ Roll Call who keeps tabs on the influence industry.

April 28, 2014

Obama’s Unlobbyists | K Street Files

In the past week, reporters — like me — have pored over the most recent lobbying disclosures. We’re looking for stories about the revenue patterns at K Street’s notable shops.

But the best story may be what’s not in there.

If you’re curious about how business is for the ex-Obama administration officials who decamped for a shadow version of K Street, you won’t find a clue in the Lobbying Disclosure Act records.

Because these staffers do the kind of advocacy work that isn’t covered by the federal lobbying laws, such as grass-roots or public messaging, or because they spend less than 20 percent of their time on lobbying activities, they are free of the burdens of disclosure that compel their traditional K Street kin to reveal clients and fees.

“There is no doubt that there is this underground lobbying railroad where people aren’t registered, but they are involved in advocating on behalf of clients,” said Ivan Adler, a K Street headhunter with the McCormick Group.

Obama’s 2012 campaign manager Jim Messina runs the Messina Group, which bills itself on its website as “a full-service consulting firm” that uses its experience “winning campaigns and passing historic pieces of legislation to assist clients.”

Full-service does not include registered lobbying, apparently.

Others taking this path include former Health and Human Services official Dora Hughes, a senior policy adviser with Sidley Austin’s government strategies practice; Anita Dunn, a former Obama White House communications director, who is a managing director at SKDKnickerbocker; Nicole Isaac, a former special assistant to the president for legislative affairs, a principal with the D.C. firm theGroup.

The Obama administration did not invent the unlobbyist. Former lawmakers such as one-time Senate Majority Leaders Bob Dole, R-Kan., and Tom Daschle, D-S.D., and Speaker Newt Gingrich, R-Ga., resisted registering.

But the Obama message-makers made attacks on K Street a signature of the president’s campaigns, and the administration’s policies banning lobbyists from serving without a waiver or barring them from ever lobbying the Obama executive branch may have had the unintended consequence of pushing more advocacy work into the shadows.

“They literally ran the best message campaign in modern politics, and one of the central themes was cleaning up Washington,” said a registered lobbyist who requested to speak on condition of anonymity. “After six years, they didn’t go back to Chicago or wherever they came from, they stayed here in Washington. They employ lobbyists, and they work with lobbyists. I see no difference between what I do and what they do.”

Those who wish to overhaul the lobbying disclosure system to include more of the “unlobbyists” don’t necessarily agree on how to do it. Pretty much everyone does agree that the current laws lack enforcement.

Basically, unless you register as a lobbyist with the clerk of the House and the secretary of the Senate, no one knows you exist and no one comes after your time sheets to see if you are under that 20 percent threshold that triggers the LDA registration. (A lobbyist can also stay outside the system by making only one lobbying contact with a covered official.)

If the congressional officials in charge of administering the LDA hear of someone not reporting, they can refer the matter to the U.S. Attorney’s office. “With a few exceptions, that becomes a black hole,” said Tom Susman, director of the American Bar Association’s governmental affairs office.

Susman has been pushing Congress to lower the 20 percent threshold, but even he isn’t sure what precisely is the magic number. Maybe 10 percent. “It’s arbitrary,” he conceded. An alternative, he suggested, could be to do away with the time percentage and make it based on fees as a way to rope into the system grass-roots, media affairs and strategic advisers.

Craig Holman, a registered lobbyist with Public Citizen, said he’d like a professional investigative agency that could audit unregistered Washington policy advisers such as Daschle, who works at DLA Piper.

“The solution to the problem is not to get rid of all these ethics requirements,” Holman said. “The solution is to create an enforcement agency to enforce the law.”

Registered lobbyists already must report to Congress their campaign donations including high-dollar bundling activities because of lobbying law changes after the Jack Abramoff scandal. But Susman sees the Obama effect as a major factor.

“I don’t think people would have such hesitation to register if not for the Obama administration’s having handicapped lobbyists for employment, meetings, advisory panels,” Susman said.

And who wouldn’t just rather skip all the paperwork of disclosure and the branding as a lobbyist?

It just happens to leave the public — voters — unaware of the pressures on officials.

The opacity isn’t likely to ebb as more Obama administration officials head through the revolving door for the private sector during the president’s remaining years in office.

Just this month, Bart Chilton, who left his gig as a commissioner at the Commodity Futures Trading Commission, joined Daschle’s firm, DLA Piper.

Will Chilton represent some of the companies he regulated at the CFTC?

We may never know. A spokeswoman for the firm said he has no plans to register as a lobbyist.

March 5, 2014

Groups Try to Mute the Comcast Lobby | K Street Files

Just what will a “Comcastic” lobbying budget buy you? A growing coalition of consumer groups hopes “not a new merger” is the answer.

It’s been three weeks since Comcast Corp. announced its intention to merge with Time Warner Cable. The two companies are worth more than $25 million on K Street alone, based on last year’s lobby tabs. But what remains a mystery is whether that will tip the scales in the companies’ favor. Full story

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