July 12, 2014

It’s Another World to the Influence Industry

With its global reach, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee attracts as wide a swath of special interests as any on Capitol Hill. Lobbyists for countries as tiny as Liechtenstein and large international relief groups such as Oxfam all try to make their case before Members and staff.

Foreign governments have nabbed some of the top lobbying firms in town with their stable of Capitol Hill veterans to gain access to the committee, which is chaired by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and whose top Republican is Sen. Dick Lugar (Ind.).

Some lobbyists, however, note that dealing with the committee is markedly different than other Congressional panels, saying it is less partisan and more policy-oriented.

And spokesmen for the committee say the lawmakers and staff rely as much or more on foreign policy experts as they do on the hired guns for guidance.

Hadar Susskind, the director of policy and strategy for J Street, a liberal Jewish group trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said the discussions with the committee are at a high level.

“We’re dealing with very large geopolitical questions,” he said. “This isn’t a discussion about renaming a post office.”

Susskind also said that it behooves lobbyists who deal with the committee to do their homework since the staff and key lawmakers are often well-versed on the subject matter.

“If you are faking it, John Kerry would know it,” he said.

Mark Siegel, who represents the government of Pakistan, said that in making a case before the committee, “you are not starting from ground zero.”

“You can really engage them intellectually,” said Siegel, who works for the law firm Locke Lord Bissell & Liddell. He added that in an era of increased partisan rancor, the Democrats and Republicans on the Foreign Relations Committee still have a relatively good working relationship.

Kerry and Lugar, for example, co-sponsored legislation signed by the president last year that provided $7.5 billion in assistance to Pakistan.

Andy Fisher, a spokesman for Lugar, agreed that “most of the time,” the committee has been less partisan, but he said it faces some tough issues in the coming year including an arms control treaty.

He said that many of the groups that appear before the committee may not be considered lobbyists in the conventional sense and instead hail from international humanitarian groups such as Oxfam or are officials with Washington, D.C., think tanks or former State Department officials.

“These are people who have been active in foreign policy,” Fisher said.

Greg Adams, acting director of aid effectiveness for Oxfam, said his group meets with Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff “to keep them informed on what is happening on the ground” in the 120 developing countries the humanitarian organization serves. Adams said Oxfam can often give staffers a different perspective from the one they get from the State Department or Pentagon in hot spots such as Afghanistan.

Adams also described the Foreign Relations Committee as “an oasis of bipartisanship” where Oxfam often briefs Republican and Democratic staffers together — something he said does not typically happen with other committees.

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