The way lobbyists woo the incoming freshman class of lawmakers is a lot like dating. They’re seeking out people with common interests. They’re hoping to cultivate a long-term relationship. And they’re looking for that know-it-when-you-see-it spark.
And this week — with members-elect in town for orientation — offers plenty of opportunities for flirting. Receptions, meet-and-greets and even fundraisers are being squeezed between official business.
“It’s not like the old days, where you just go and get a steak somewhere. The choices are policy discussions or fundraisers,” said John Feehery, a Republican lobbyist with QGA Public Affairs. “It’s kind of like kids: They used to just go out and play, and now you have play dates.”
Lobbyists, most of whom have been around the corridors of power for years, can offer novice lawmakers more than just a network of political cash. They can recommend hires for congressional offices, make introductions to big players on legislative issues and help members develop coalitions — inside and outside Congress — for their priority issues.
“We can play a constructive role in helping them develop a strong pool of candidates for various positions,” said Kai Anderson, a lobbyist at Cassidy & Associates, who formerly worked for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, D-Nev. “There’s also, for those of us who have Senate experience, helping folks who have moved from the House to the Senate understand the different rules of the game there.”
Feehery added that some lobbyists try to attend freshman or party retreats. “Basically, you’re just trying to find out where these folks are and go meet them,” Feehery said. “Obviously, it takes some work.”
And fundraising isn’t the only way advocates get to know them as candidates.
Grover Norquist, president of Americans for Tax Reform, said that almost all the Republican newcomers in the House and Senate have stopped by the Wednesday meetings he runs. “We will be inviting all of them to come to the Wednesday meeting as newly elected congressmen,” he said, “to talk about what’s of interest to them and how we can work together.”
Mike Quaranta, a lobbyist with the Podesta Group, said his firm is busy setting up meet-and-greets with members-elect on both sides of the aisle to give clients entrée to the incoming class. He’s also poring over the new lawmakers’ bios, looking for areas of mutual interest.
Quaranta said he’s a member of the Lions Club, which champions diabetes and vision issues, and looks to see if the members-elect might be, too.
“Or they may have a son or daughter with a particular need, a cause they are deeply committed to,” he added. “It takes some digging.”
That digging helps lobbyists size up who’s likely to land on which committees. And K Streeters are swapping information among themselves to see which new members have star power.
“This process starts when they’re candidates, helping members win races and get elected to Congress,” said Mike Hacker, a lobbyist and communications adviser at HDMK. “No one can meet all of the new members, and so when lobbyists get together and exchange notes, some members have some buzz about them, maybe they have leadership ambitions.”
Like most lobbyists, Chuck Merin, executive vice president of the Prime Policy Group, already has met some of the new arrivals at fundraisers or client events. He said one-on-one interaction to assess the newly elected members is vital.
“Part of the decision-making process for me, as I get to know new members, is to try and gauge their interests and capabilities and their willingness to take the lead on issues of mutual interest,” he said.
Merin has numerous clients in the travel and tourism business, so he will likely start with freshmen from states such as Florida, California or Hawaii (think Rep.-elect Tulsi Gabbard) that have a big tourist economy. “As a lobbyist since 1976, I fully appreciate the importance of developing relationships with new members on both sides of the aisle,” Merin said
After all, every future leader started off as a freshman lawmaker.
J.C. Scott, senior executive vice president of government relations for the medical device lobby AdvaMed, said his group begins with the members-elect from states in which his industry has a major presence, such as Massachusetts and Indiana. Both states have new incoming Democratic senators in Elizabeth Warren and Joe Donnelly, respectively.
“That is a good starting point, but we certainly don’t limit ourselves,” Scott said.
He added that already his group has reached out to some incoming freshmen, looking for opportunities to meet with them. AdvaMed, along with other industry groups, has scheduled a lobbying fly-in for Thursday at which executives from member companies plan to urge the repeal of a tax on medical devices included in the health care overhaul. But, he said, AdvaMed is also seeking meetings in the home states of incoming members.
“We are having some luck,” Scott said. “They do set up temporary cubicles, and they do have a phone and a desk and a staffer.”