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The 110th Congress, looking to kick off a session in which it’s expected to pass gift bans and other changes to Member-lobbyist interactions, might think it’s a few steps ahead of the K Street crowd.
But think again.
Lobbyists — who, after all, get paid to anticipate changes in Congress for clients — already have been busy looking for potential loopholes and other ways to skirt anticipated new rules, even before those proposed rules come to a vote.
Their strategies run the gamut from turning social gatherings into policy briefings to the idea — more ethically slippery, to many experts — of terminating lobbying registrations in the hope that any interactions would not be covered by the new restrictions.
“Whatever you put in place, it always amazes me, people will find a way around it,” said one prominent Democratic lobbyist, who requested anonymity.
If certain social interactions become taboo, this lobbyist said, she would focus more on cultivating relationships with Members or staff in the context of alumni groups and state societies, or through activities with their children — not to mention through fundraisers that benefit the Members’ coffers.
“It seems like you push down on one side and something pops up on another one,” she added.
Some lobbyists are just trying to find ways to make sure their lobbying message gets through regardless of the new rules.
Late last year, for example, Ralph Hellmann, the chief lobbyist at the Information Technology Industry Council, and his deputies began brainstorming ways to cultivate relationships with Members and staff in lieu of the trips and lunches they expect to be relegated to the history books.
“We took probably 250 top [staffers] over the last four or five years on trips to our members’ facilities, and obviously that’s not going to be in the cards anymore,” Hellmann said. “But we still have to figure out how to get top staff and Members to see our technologies.”
One of Hellmann’s alternatives, he said, is to step up the tours of tech facilities in Northern Virginia. He also said that he plans to bring industry executives to Capitol Hill more often.
“We’re going to spend a lot more time on policy forums,” he said. “If you can’t take them to TenPenh and buy them lunch, you have to provide non-food-oriented settings that are compelling enough to come see us.”
Susan Neely, president of the American Beverage Association, said there is no substitute for a Member or staff coming to see a bottling operation, so her group will rely on in-district visits with the local Congressman. She said that the likely rule changes would put her companies, which include well-known brands such as Coca-Cola and Pepsi, at something of an advantage over lesser-known companies.
“We’ll have to lean more on the ability we have of representing big trademarks that operate in a lot of Congressional districts,” she said. “If new Democratic Members are holding breakfast briefings, we’ll be there. We’ll be there knocking on doors.”
Two well-known lobbyists, one a Democrat and the other a Republican, said that on the cocktail and fundraising circuits, lobbyists already have been abuzz with new ideas about how to sidestep as-yet-unpassed rules.
One said that a few colleagues have raised the possibility of terminating their lobbying registrations and moving into roles within their firms that are officially classified as non-lobbying, to avoid travel or gift bans if they apply only to registered lobbyists.
“I was at a party yesterday with a friend who said this is what he’s going to do,” said the Republican lobbyist.
And how about getting around new limits on Members using corporate jets? The Democratic lobbyist said he’d heard about lobbyists trying to get state party committees to charter corporate flights for Members.
Another GOP lobbyist said he’s been preparing himself for months to deal with a gift ban, which is expected to keep in place the numerous exceptions for widely attended stand-up receptions and for pre-existing personal friendships.
If the exemption for widely attended events holds, this lobbyist said, he would consider holding quarterly parties instead of just one holiday party each year.
“I need to have contact with staff that’s not official business,” he said. “If I can’t take them to lunch or can’t take them to sporting events, I have to figure out how I can spend some time with them without being annoying.”
Several lobbyists said that fundraising events, too, will be at a premium, especially if Congress does not enact any campaign finance reforms geared toward lobbyists.
“I am going to be embraced and hugged and kissed as long as I’m giving them a check” for their campaign, said one lobbyist.
Most of the 18 lobbyists interviewed for this article said they would use fundraisers to talk more about legislative issues that affect their clients. Some lobbyists say they feel that doing so has been historically seen as taboo — though experts say such chatter does not violate any current rules on campaign finance or lobbying.
“It looks more like a quid pro quo,” said one GOP lobbyist. But most agreed that they won’t hesitate to talk business — especially if Members ask what issues they’re working on.
Still, not all lobbyists expect much hardship from the proposed reforms.
Andy Rosenberg, a Democratic lobbyist at the Federalist Group, said a gift ban won’t faze him because he hasn’t bought an aide a lunch or taken one to a sports event over the past year, he said.
“We’re discontinuing our baseball tickets,” he said. “Regardless of what the leadership does, the firm has taken a very strict position, and it hasn’t impacted our ability to get things done for clients.”
But, Rosenberg added, the cultural changes may still be hard to fully adapt to.
In a recent meeting, he said, he and his colleagues were trying to figure out a way to “educate” a new Congressional staff person on a client’s issue. “I was about to say that ‘maybe we can take him out ... ,’ and another person finished the sentence by saying ‘Don’t say lunch, because you can’t take him out to lunch.’”
It’s made lobbying “a little less fun and a little less social,” he added.