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Rep. Xavier Becerra had been a member of the Joint Committee on Deficit Reduction for a mere two hours before he was fighting off accusations of using his new role to raise money thanks to his K Street friends.
Lobbyists hosting a fundraiser for the California Democrat at the Investment Company Institute — a trade group that has spent more than $2.4 million on lobbying this year, according to federal records — were quick to use his new power to promote the event.
The invitation, emailed Thursday just before 2 p.m., highlighted a simple reality: Although the committee was created as a way to set the task of deficit reduction apart from the day-to-day politics of Congress, the business of influence is ever-present where lawmakers are involved.
Lobbyists spent the past two weeks predicting possible committee rosters and gaming out fantasy plays, industry insiders said in interviews. Now, with all 12 members in line, they have begun putting real plans into action.
The bipartisan, bicameral group — tasked with finding at least $1.2 trillion in budget savings over the coming decade, enough to offset the increased debt limit — has great power to direct government taxing and spending for years to come. And the lobbyists who have access to this group have the potential for great influence, too.
Between the 12 lawmakers, there are more than 100 former aides who now lobby for various firms, companies or trade associations, according to data compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics. And many of them will tap into their old relationships to try defending their clients from the spray of spending cuts that must be enacted.
They include, but are not limited to: Rick Desimone, the former chief of staff to Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.), a lobbyist at McBee Strategic Consulting who represents, among others, Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America, the drug industry group expected to be very involved in the debt negotiations; Bob Schellhas, who served as the chief of staff for Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) from 1999 to 2003 and recently left his lobbying position at CitiGroup to join the tax-focused Washington Council Ernst & Young; Nick Giordano, a former legislative director for Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) who now works for Ernst & Young; and Steven Duffield, a GOP operative and the policy director for Crossroads GPS, who served as Sen. Jon Kyl’s (R-Ariz.) policy director between 2003 and 2008 and moved to the Republican National Committee before founding Endgame Strategies in 2009.
Lobbyists themselves say such connections can be overstated.
“There are people downtown who see it through that prism,” said Arshi Siddiqui, former Ways and Means counsel to Becerra who also worked for seven years as a policy adviser to House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.). She now lobbies on tax issues on behalf of Pfizer Inc., the California Association of Physician Groups and the media company Cox Enterprises at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld. “I think that’s a very small part of the strategy on the process,” she said.
Several government watchdog groups have called on members of the new panel to stop fundraising during their deliberations and are particularly alarmed that Murray, the committee’s co-chairwoman, also leads the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. As recently as Thursday, President Barack Obama scolded Congress for letting politics interfere with its work on developing policies to help the economy.
Those concerns, however, have had little resonance among lawmakers or leadership. To set special rules for the super committee on fundrasing would imply that existing rules don’t sufficiently insulate policy deliberations from political pressure. So, the parties go on.
The committee members already have four personal fundraisers scheduled between Sept. 7 and Oct. 4, on top of at least six DSCC events planned this fall, according to the Sunlight Foundation.
But fall fundraisers and ties with an ex-boss may not be enough to convince lawmakers to shake up the plans beyond what’s already been discussed for potential cuts.
“Everything’s been kind of lined up by now,” said Behrends Foster, who served as chief of staff for Rep. Dave Camp (R-Mich.) and now represents America’s Health Insurance Plans out of his own shop, Bluestone Strategies. “The people up [on the Hill] now are those on the chopping block or those who have some savings to offer.”
Defense contractors, hospitals, radiologists, doctors and drug companies are among the industry insiders most activated, industry insiders said.
Lobbyists will also take their arguments to the standing committees charged with making recommendations for cuts before Oct. 14, as well as to the House and Senate leaders who will be responsible for whipping their caucuses when and if the package comes up for final votes, they said.
Jack Howard, a lobbyist at Wexler & Walker who represents major defense companies, said that the makeup of the joint committee is going to make it hard to get through anything other than strong policy arguments.
Howard has never worked directly for any of the panel members, but he said he has worked with many of the Republican members in his capacity as a deputy assistant to President George W. Bush and as an adviser to then-Speakers Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) and Newt Gingrich (R-Ga.), as well as then-Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.).
“These people aren’t going to cut me any slack because they know me,” Howard said. “The criteria won’t be who worked for whom or who raised the most money. ... The real criteria will be: What can my clients and I tell them that’s new, that they haven’t heard before? With this group and all their experience, that will be quite a challenge. That’s what will be the behind-the-curtain action.”
Correction: Sept. 1, 2011
An earlier version of this story misstated Nick Giordano's current employer. He works for Ernst & Young.