Uncertain times could bring new lobbying strategies

Workarounds include deeper outreach to think tanks, academia and other institutions

Even as more lawmakers have shrugged off donations from PACs and as the Trump era has disrupted the nation’s politics, K Street has not suffered a noticeable hit to its bottom line. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

ANALYSIS — It’s hard to imagine a more bonkers, unpredictable and politically toxic backdrop for K Street operators than the current one. But just wait until 2020 actually arrives. 

The presidential election year will hit lobbyists with potential risks all around. Candidates up and down the ballot will press proposals to remake the influence industry and to overhaul the nation’s campaign finance system. More candidates will reject K Street and business donations. The approaching elections, along with an expected impeachment trial early on, will turn Capitol Hill into an even bigger political mess.

[Retiring lawmakers will face tough market on K Street]

Still, lobbyists say they have no plans to zip up their campaign checkbooks, hide under their desks or decamp from the capital.

Instead, they’re brewing alternative strategies, workarounds that include deeper outreach to think tanks, academia and other institutions that can lend policy gravitas to shape major discussions over health care, immigration, trade, taxes and other matters that will feature prominently on the campaign trail and beyond. 

If Congress ends up too mired in partisan stalemate in 2020, well, it affords lobbyists more time for informal sessions and policy discussions with idle aides in an attempt to influence the landscape before a fresh legislature convenes in 2021 to pursue possibly big ideas.

Longtime lobbyist Stephanie Silverman, founder of Venn Strategies, which represents pharmaceutical and other business interests, calls this background work “blueprinting.” Lawmakers, and candidates, will float proposals that may lay the foundation for future bills, and lobbyists can sometimes get in at the early stage.

“Even if Congress isn’t going to enact major legislation, legislation has a natural runway,” Silverman says. “With respect to candidates, their policy proposals are very high-level. Very few get into the nitty-gritty, so the goal isn’t to counter the proposals but to begin policy conversations.”

Not many lobbyists have direct communication links with the Democratic presidential candidates and their policy teams. But there’s an entire ecosystem of organizations that produce research reports and policy templates that candidates can adopt. K Street already relies on such groups, but in the coming year those ties may grow exponentially. 

“Third-party stakeholder engagement is really, really important,” Marie Sylla-Dixon, vice president of federal government and external affairs at T-Mobile, said during a CQ Roll Call/FiscalNote webinar that I moderated. “A lot of members of Congress — and also, even right now, a lot of the presidential candidates — when they’re looking at different policy agendas, they’re really borrowing ideas from a lot of these think tanks, for example, on key issues.”

“It’s still important to go up on the Hill and do that on-the-ground education, but it’s also important to make sure that you have key validators who are helping to tell the story,” Sylla-Dixon added.

Think tanks and other outside policy-focused organizations, as well as academics, offer an alternative voice and one that candidates, lawmakers and voters alike may be willing to hear rather than corporate interests. 

[Educating K Street: Colleges and universities seek influence in Congress, executive branch]

The no-PAC pledges offer a window into the public’s skepticism of businesses’ role in the political process. Nearly 60 sitting lawmakers, all Democrats, and 102 challengers say they reject donations from the PACs of corporations. Some even go further, eschewing donations from all PACs, including those of unions.

But even as more lawmakers have shrugged off such money and as the Trump era has disrupted the nation’s politics, K Street has not suffered a noticeable hit to its bottom line. Last year, for example, spending in the federal lobbying sector reached nearly $3.5 billion, according to a Center for Responsive Politics tabulation of publicly reported lobbying disclosures. That’s almost back to K Street’s peak of $3.51 billion in 2010.

Corporate and trade association PACs collect voluntary donations from executives and then make contributions with those funds. They typically give to lawmakers in both parties as a way of opening channels of communication with elected officials. 

[K Street Reinvents Itself in the Era of Trump]

Bryan Zumwalt, executive vice president of public affairs for the Grocery Manufacturers Association, says part of the effort to remake his group, which will change its name in 2020 to the Consumer Brands Association, is to bolster its small PAC, not shutter it.

“It’s hard to overstate the value of a PAC as an advocacy tool when you’re an organization in Washington,” he said during the recent webinar. “What you’re using those PAC dollars for is to buy an amount of time to present your issues, or to show your support, or to build a relationship.”

And that will be increasingly important as lobbying interests try to press their positions in what promises to be a cacophonous, tumultuous and politically perilous new year.

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