While most of the lobbying surrounding Congress' new deficit committee will be focused on easing the pain of massive cuts, a sliver of K Street will be on the prowl for ways to help clients by sneaking in provisions that might have little chance of passing otherwise.
Unlike most fast-tracked legislation, the bill produced by the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction will not be subject to a decades-old rule named for the late Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) that bars the inclusion of "extraneous" matters on budget packages.
Without the Byrd Rule, Members can include policy and regulatory issues that have no direct budget impact as a
potential pawn in the furious horse-trading likely to take place during the next four months. And lobbyists will be right there for the action, up until the panel's Nov. 23 deadline for producing a bill.
"There will be lobbyists who look at this and think, 'If I can just get my provision into this bill, I'm golden,'" said Robert Dove, who served as Senate parliamentarian for about 12 years in the 1980s and '90s and now advises lobbyists at Patton Boggs. "That gives enormous freedom to this joint committee."
He noted that changes to Social Security would not be allowed under the Byrd Rule, but they are fair game for the new super committee.
The committee's proposal would ride a fast track to the floor with limited debate, prohibiting the use of a filibuster — meaning only 51 votes are necessary for approval — and protecting it from amendments. That's a lot like the budget reconciliation process, except that in this case the power is concentrated in the hands of just 12 Members — six Representatives and six Senators, equally divided between the parties — instead of several committees working together to find savings. Reconciliation also is open to amendment, whereas the deficit reduction package will have to be voted on as is by Dec. 23.
The short timeline combined with the exemption from the filibuster, amendments and the Byrd Rule gives the yet-to-be-selected lawmakers almost unfettered and unprecedented power. Hypothetically, they could even mandate an up-or-down vote on a package that includes language on the most controversial social issues, such as abortion and gay marriage.
But at the end of the day, the joint committee will want to get a deal approved on the floor and, if they need sweeteners, will more likely turn to less-controversial issues that are not likely to capture the public's imagination.
Among the issues to watch, according to Republican and Democratic lobbyists: Environmental Protection Agency regulations, patent reform ­— which has passed the House but is awaiting Senate consideration — medical malpractice reform, and the financial regulatory overhaul law, which Republicans have vowed to dismantle since it passed last year.
With so much legislative activity, such as the FAA reauthorization and highway bill, pushed into the wings to make way for the deficit debate, the joint committee bill could be the only vehicle left, "the last train leaving the station," as several lobbyists referred to it.
Lobbyists would likely frame these proposals in terms of the long-term effects on economic growth.
"There are a lot of ways the government can cost the economy money," said Scott Segal, a lobbyist at Bracewell & Giuliani, which represents energy companies, including utilities and oil and gas firms. "One of them is through misspending tax revenues, and the other way is imposing a heavy regulatory burden on the energy sector."
Lobbyists could target several overlapping rules governing the power sector and limits on permits for offshore drilling, even though those rules are not directly related to the budget, Segal said.
An idea like that might have traction among lawmakers such as Sen. David Vitter (R-La.) who said Wednesday he's putting a procedural hold on an Interior Department nominee until the agency extends for one year hundreds of expiring Gulf drilling leases.
Lobbyists are in the early stages of strategizing, and with lawmakers on recess until September, the appetite and need for these kinds of elements remains to be seen.
"Our first concern is who is going to be on the committee because that will be very telling," one business industry lobbyist said.
Congressional leaders must appoint the committee members by Aug. 16.
"Anyone lobbying those 12 guys is going to have to be pretty delicate," a Republican lobbyist and ex-GOP leadership staffer said. "And I think filling their inbox with stupid ideas that don't help them solve their problem is bad lobbying."
Plus, with the ink barely dry on the debt deal, most lobbyists struck a cautious tone.
"The absence of the Byrd Rule doesn't remove the other institutional barriers on a piece of legislation like this, including the fact that everyone and their mother is going to be watching this with a microscope and items unrelated to reduction go two times under that," said Rich Gold, a Democratic lobbyist with Holland & Knight.
Still, he said, "there's a difference between what's real and what people are thinking. ... People are going to be looking for opportunities."