Ten months ago, Democrats swept into power on promises of breaking the link between lawmakers and lobbyists. But in July, just as Democratic leaders on Capitol Hill were hammering out the final details of a sweeping lobbying reform package, Democratic operatives downtown were breaking out their green eyeshades to total up half-year profits not seen in more than a decade.
Like Republican lobbyists after the 1994 elections, Democratic clout merchants are finding proof in the bottom line: Their party’s return to power has been very sweet news indeed.
“The interest from corporate America in both defensive and offensive help has upticked tremendously at our firm,” said Robert Raben, founder of all-Democrat shop The Raben Group.
And while Democrats benefiting from a Democratic takeover should come as no surprise, outwardly, the experiences of Republican lobbyists 12 years ago and Democratic lobbyists today are starkly different.
Back then, newly installed GOP leaders made no secret of bringing their downtown allies into the backrooms of power — literally. To help pass initiatives from the “Contract with America,” Rep. John Boehner (R-Ohio), then-chairman of the House Republican Conference, started a weekly session with a mix of corporate and conservative movement lobbyists. Called the Thursday Group, the conclave acted as a war room to coordinate grass-roots support for the ambitious legislative push.
Those in the room labored for the agenda with the knowledge that their help would be rewarded with exceptional access. “We know who’s doing the work,” Boehner told Time magazine in March 1995.
“We encouraged participation from K Street,” said Don Fierce, then-director of strategic planning and Congressional affairs for the Republican National Committee and now a principal in the all-GOP shop Fierce, Isakowitz & Blalock. “But we also knew there was a cultural difference in K Street — a culture of probably 75 to 80 percent Democrats.”
The early Republican reliance on downtown forces to help with the grunt work of legislating was a prelude to a much broader effort to remake downtown itself. With the K Street Project, as the effort became known, Republicans on the Hill carried out a pressure campaign to rapidly undo decades of Democratic dominance in the lobbying industry.
By all accounts, it was tremendously successful. (By Fierce’s reckoning, Republicans today have 60 percent of lobbying jobs, including the vast majority of top corporate and trade association posts.)
But while the K Street Project put K Street Republicans in the fast lane to riches, it eventually boomeranged. The institutionalized coziness between Congressional decision-makers and their downtown allies led to ethical breaches, culminating in the Jack Abramoff lobbying scandal, which helped topple the GOP in November.
Democrats touched a nerve with voters by campaigning against what they said was a Republican “culture of corruption” and pledged to clean up the process.
Ironically, Democratic lobbyists say, the K Street Project actually has been paying dividends for their party long after Election Day — by codifying the notion that corporate interests need to staff up on influence peddlers from the party in power to get their voices heard.
“People realized they can’t get the information they need, they can’t get the access they need, they can’t get the strategic advice they need, because they got rid of their Democrats,” said Steve Elmendorf, who launched his own all-Democrat firm last fall.
So even as Congressional Democrats pushed through new rules designed to make it harder for lobbyists to cash in, Democrats downtown have been doing just that.
Elmendorf’s shop already boasts about two dozen clients — including corporate titans such as Microsoft, Verizon, Ford, Home Depot and Shell Oil — and pulled in more than $1.8 million in the first six months of this year, according to Senate filings. And that’s split among four professionals.
Established all-Democrat shops have seen their revenue spike, and new firms springing up to follow their lead are reeling in clients as well. Exclusively Democratic Capitol Counsel and Parven Pomper Schuyler, for example, have both built impressive books of business since launching late last year by focusing on tax and trade issues.
Even more recently, a crop of solo operators with experience in the labor movement have hung out shingles to help corporate clients navigate union issues.
Dirk Van Dongen, a veteran GOP lobbyist and president of the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, said these days, when a bipartisan pair of lobbyists heads to the Hill for a meeting, the Democrat is now the “lead dog.”
That change in dynamic tracks with a shift in corporate political giving. In 1995, after eight years of dividing contributions evenly between the parties, corporate political action committees responded to pressure from the new Republican majority by steering 72 percent of their donations to them. Over the next decade, that percentage hovered in the high 60s, according to figures from the Campaign Finance Institute.
Now, the pendulum is swinging back. Michael Malbin, the institute’s executive director, predicted “a substantial shift toward bipartisanship that will especially take hold if it looks as if the Democratic party will stay in control of Congress for another two years, and right now, the odds look that way.”
Like lobbying, fundraising also is benefiting from aggressive traditions established during a dozen years of GOP rule. That is, Congressional Democratic leaders don’t have to strong-arm business interests the way their Republican predecessors did because the lessons of that era are now so ingrained.
“That kind of outreach to the K Street community hasn’t been there,” said John D. Raffaelli, a longtime Democratic lobbyist who founded the all-Democrat Capitol Counsel late last year. “And they probably don’t feel they need to, given their success raising money so far.”
Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., right, hugs Harold Schaitberger, General President of the International Association of Fire Fighters, after the Congressman spoke at the IAFF's Legislative Conference General Session at the Hyatt Regency on Capitol Hill, March 9, 2015. The day featured addresses by members of Congress and Vice President Joe Biden.