Pope Francis' arrival in the nation’s capital next week will spark plenty of lobbying, but the Holy See itself hasn’t converted to the rituals of K Street.
The Vatican doesn’t disclose lobbyists under the Foreign Agents Registration Act, as many sovereign governments do. Instead, the church relies on other channels, such as the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and its diplomatic liaisons from the embassy-like papal nuncio, to influence U.S. policy and legislation.
And Francis, in particular, enjoys a celebrity status and evokes a level of enthusiasm rare among heads of state or religious leaders that would be impossible for even the savviest K Streeter to parallel — which is why lobbyists and activists plan to use his trip to amplify their policy messages.
“He is a unique world leader who is both head of state and head of a church of 1.2 billion-plus people, who has one of the largest moral megaphones in the world,” said Jim Nicholson, who served as the U.S. ambassador to the Holy See during the George W. Bush administration. “When he speaks, people listen.”
The Vatican, which maintains formal diplomatic ties with the United States, does not have any specific exemption under the foreign agents law, said Marc Raimondi, a Justice Department spokesman.
The Holy See, he added, “is regarded under FARA as any other foreign government,” though some activities on behalf of the Vatican may qualify for “the so-called religious exemption” of the statute.
The Vatican has only once, back in the fall of 1968, employed a registered foreign agent: Victor De Guinzbourg, who disclosed working for the Office of the Permanent Observer of the Holy See to the United Nations, Raimondi said.
Not everyone agrees with the Holy See’s strategy of eschewing K Street.
“I think they could use some good lobbyists because Catholic politicians don't necessarily follow papal edicts, and because priests don't have the pull that they once did,” said lobbyist John Feehery, a former GOP House aide now with QGA Public Affairs.
Feehery added that the Vatican does follow the ins and outs of Washington policy “on issues as varied as immigration reform to religious freedom in the context of gay marriage.”
Even without K Street intervention, the Vatican has plenty of access on Capitol Hill and among federal agencies.
“The U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops obviously works very closely with the Vatican and is constantly in the process of making policy recommendations,” said Steve Schneck, who leads the Institute for Policy Research and Catholic Studies at Catholic University.
The conference, which did not respond to a request for comment, keeps a government relations and congressional liaison unit headed by Jayd Henricks, who was previously a registered lobbyist with the conservative Family Research Council.
The bishops have taken more liberal-leaning policy views on such matters as immigration, but have kept a hard-line position against abortion rights and same-sex marriage. The group initially endorsed the idea of expanding health care coverage in President Barack Obama’s signature overhaul (PL 111-148) but ultimately opposed it over abortion and contraception matters.
“They are well known advocates on Capitol Hill,” said Schneck, who added that he works with the conference’s justice and peace committee. “It’s actually a pretty big operation.”
Though the bishops’ policy arm currently is focused heavily on anti-abortion and same-sex marriage efforts, the group also lobbies for poverty relief programs, affordable housing and other items.
The Conference of Catholic Bishops has not disclosed any federal lobbying to Congress under the Lobbying Disclosure Act since 2006 when an outside consultant, Michelle Doyle, terminated work for the group. (Organizations that spend less than 20 percent of their time on lobbying work are not required to file federal lobbying disclosures.)
Even if the pontiff isn’t officially engaging K Street denizens, insiders such as Nicholson, who is a senior counsel with the firm Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, will still be part of the action next week. Francis arrives at Andrews Air Force Base on Sept. 22 and has a packed schedule while in Washington.
Nicholson said he plans to attend a Mass next Wednesday, Sept. 23, at the Basilica of the National Shrine of the Immaculate Conception on the Catholic University campus as well as the pontiff’s address to Congress on Sept. 24 — the first ever by any pope.
“I’m at a law firm of some 300 people of all religious stripes, and they have a fascination with this pope,” Nicholson said. “Jewish partners, Protestant partners, they all want to talk to me all the time about this pope. He’s captured the imagination and interest of all people.”