Funding Bills Drive Lobbyists' Election-Year Agenda

K Street won’t cede the year’s policy battles to election-year politics just yet.

Lobbyists particularly are eyeing opportunities in the budget and appropriations process, as lawmakers pledge a move to regular order. Even if Congress ultimately gives up on bringing the 12 individual appropriations bills to the floor, the private sector sees lots of opportunity to push clients’ agendas, including regulatory matters, through the funding debate.

“That’s something that opens up opportunities to do a lot more legislating,” said lobbyist Andy Rosenberg of Thorn Run Partners. “It leaves a lot of room for monkey business and playing both offense and defense in the appropriations process.”

Business lobbyists say they also are pressing for mega priorities such as the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade, a Federal Aviation Administration reauthorization bill and a long-shot tax overhaul. Even if a tax bill or other measures don’t see passage this year, lobbyists say they are working to influence these agenda items that could gain traction early in 2017 with a new president and a fresh Congress.

The spending battle, though, is one of the most immediate, doable matters.

“On appropriations, there’s no reason for there not to be regular order; they have their allocations,” said former appropriator James T. Walsh, now with K&L Gates. The New York Republican added that in addition to Speaker Paul D. Ryan’s push for regular order on spending bills, Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev., has said he’s willing to work with Republicans to move the bills in his chamber.

“I think it bodes very well,” Walsh said. “You’ve got to get in the door early. You could see a lot of action early on and then not much until the lame duck.”

Lawmakers are planning to break for the two presidential nominating conventions in mid-July, returning in September before recessing again in October to campaign full time. When Congress turns its attention to the November elections, some industries — such as banking — plan to be on high alert for campaign-season rhetoric, or even messaging bills, that could target them.

Though other lobbyists say they’re less optimistic than Walsh that Congress will actually follow regular order, they still plan to use the spending bills as vehicles to influence the Obama administration’s ambitious final-year regulatory agenda including environmental, financial services and health care matters all pending.

“We haven’t seen the kind of regulatory juggernaut coming at the business community, in my memory, that will be concluded in 2016 with almost every agency having things moving forward,” said Rich Gold, who leads the lobbying practice at Holland & Knight. “The question is: How does the Hill interact with the executive branch to try and moderate those rule-makings before they’re finalized?”

Gold said he expects lobbyists to focus on that “give and take” between Congress and the administration.

Officials with big industry groups such, as the National Association of Manufacturers and the Business Roundtable, say they will press regulatory matters, along with trade expansion and tax legislation.

“We take the view that the end of 2015 was an exceptionally strong performance by Congress,” said former Michigan Gov. John Engler, a Republican who heads the roundtable, noting deals on spending and tax policy. “It’s a really hopeful sign.”

He said that momentum could help propel a bigger tax overhaul, especially as the new Ways and Means Chairman, Kevin Brady, R-Texas, looks to “make his mark.”

“As you see global economic weakness, we think the argument for U.S. tax reform is even stronger,” Engler said.

Even if not this year, as Congress is sure to be gripped by the election before long, Engler said much could move the first 100 days of the next administration in 2017. As a result, his organization is gearing up with its data and arguments already.

“What happens when you start a new administration, there’s always lots of energy and it’s usually an environment when people are willing to work together,” said Engler. “If you’re not ready, then shame on you. We intend to be ready.”