Just weeks ago, K Street lobbyists believed they were on the cusp of a frenetic legislative sprint, but now some are beginning to fret that the Trump administration’s rocky start may stymie major tax, health care and infrastructure policy achievements.
Lobbyists for companies and business groups predicted that the first two years of the Trump administration, along with a Republican-controlled Congress, would buoy their portfolios in the same way that the Democrat-led 111th Congress did at the start of the Obama presidency. Federal lobbying expenditures in 2009 and 2010 hit their all-time high of $3.5 billion a year.
That may still happen. But many lobbyists say what was expected to be the fast pace of the Trump administration’s crucial first 100 days — more than a quarter over already — has given way, at least publicly, to chaos and delay.
“It’s obvious that the unusual level of distraction coming out of the transition and from the new administration has certainly chewed up an awful lot of the bandwidth on Capitol Hill,” said Andy Rosenberg, a Democrat with Thorn Run Partners, a bipartisan lobby shop.
President Donald Trump, however, disputed those characterizations at his news conference on Feb. 16, insisting there is “zero chaos.”
The Trump White House has been the subject of negative headlines on stories about in-fighting, possible ethics violations, a botched nomination for Labor secretary and a scandal that led to the resignation of national security adviser Michael Flynn over his conversations with the Russian ambassador to the U.S.
All that is causing paralysis in the White House, making it harder to create momentum on some big items on Capitol Hill, said one Republican lobbyist who would only discuss such concerns on the condition of anonymity. “A lot of these things require presidential leadership — repeal and replace of Obamacare, tax reform,” the lobbyist said.
Senate Democrats have also taken unusual steps to delay Cabinet officials’ confirmations. That has resulted in subsequent delays of policy guidance coming out of the administration, including preparation of Trump’s fiscal 2018 budget. The Senate confirmed GOP Rep. Mick Mulvaney of South Carolina to lead the Office of Management and Budget before the Presidents Day recess, so that work can now begin.
“We are now going deep into February, and every single nominee for the Cabinet is getting super scrutiny, and it’s bogging down the establishment of the new government,” said Jeffrey Taylor, a conservative Republican lobbyist who is managing partner of U.S. Government Relations International.
Taylor said he held meetings earlier this month with a client he declined to name and administration officials. The problem: agency aides’ hands are tied on making policy decisions until the Senate confirms Cabinet officials and their deputies, he said. “These were substantive people we were meeting with, but their bosses in the Trump administration not only have not been confirmed but some haven’t even been named,” Taylor said.
The controversies surrounding Andy Puzder, the Trump administration’s first choice as Labor secretary, who withdrew his name from consideration, has delayed some K Street groups’ agenda with the agency.
“Our guys are drowning, trying to comply with this stuff,” said Juanita Duggan, president of the National Federation of Independent Business, about Obama-era labor regulations. “It takes a fearless leader with serious guts to run this department.”
Duggan, a veteran lobbyist and a former official in the Reagan and George H.W. Bush administrations, says she’s not surprised by Democrats’ resistance or the possibly slower-than-expected pace of health care and tax overhauls.
“Anybody who thought tax reform was going to happen before April, what planet do you live on?” she said. “I’m not feeling defeated. I think these things are going to get done.”
Speaker Paul D. Ryan said earlier this month that the House would turn to a tax overhaul and an infrastructure measure in the spring after dealing with health care.
Delays aren’t universally bad news for K Street.
They offer companies and organizations with a stake in the policy debates more time to mobilize. Numerous coalitions, for example, have popped up to counter a House GOP proposal to levy a border adjustment tax that would target imports.
The ambiguity swirling from the Trump team can also be a boost for lobby shops’ bottom line.
“What is driving business right now is the palpable uncertainty,” said Rich Gold, who heads the public policy and regulation practice at Holland & Knight.
In addition to the Trump administration’s tumultuous first weeks, lobbyists note major legislative achievements almost always take longer than expected. They also point out that as Senate Democrats have focused on delaying nominees, the House GOP is consumed with scrubbing regulations under the Congressional Review Act.
“This all comes at the same time that House Republicans are really trying to push these Congressional Review Act resolutions, and they are under the clock to get those done,” said Jason Abel, a former top counsel to Senate Minority Leader Charles E. Schumer. Such reviews must be completed within 60 legislative days, giving Republicans perhaps until May or early June.
“Any perceived delays in consideration can be misleading,” added Abel, now with the firm Steptoe & Johnson. “There are a lot of behind-the-scenes activities that are occurring right now.”