How to Succeed on K Street Without Really Trying

Posted June 9, 2005 at 3:39pm

The dirty little secret of lobbying is that if you get your client everything they want, you’ll suddenly be out of a job. While lobbyists are loath to say so for the record, their most reliable business comes from efforts that fall short of success, but come close enough year after year that the client remains willing to pay the bills.

Since the birth of Roll Call 50 years ago, a handful of bills stand out for their record of generating long-term revenues for K Street. We surveyed more than a dozen veteran lobbyists and former lawmakers to assemble a top 10 list of the last half-century’s biggest gravy-train bills for lobbyists.

Our criteria was to find bills that inspired lobbying that was either long-lasting, intense or both. We excluded bills dealing with appropriations, Defense contracts and most tax issues — bills that are heavily lobbied, but which come up virtually every year in one fashion or another. We also excluded lobbying on foreign affairs — another topic that receives Congressional attention on an ongoing basis.

And we excluded government-reform measures and social issues such as abortion rights and gun control. Those issues can inspire massive grass-roots efforts, but they rarely involve big-dollar corporate interests in a significant way.

Finally, we weren’t interested in a bill’s fate or the scope of its impact. In fact, in some cases, the bills we list didn’t even pass — yet.

We present the list in chronological order, based roughly on the year the debate began to heat up. The list skews toward the latter half of the past 50 years, because lobbying didn’t take its modern, organized form until the early 1970s.

Employee Retirement Income Security Act, 1974
Few lobbyists working today were around to lobby this bill more than 30 years ago, but it nevertheless stands out as a hallmark of one of the longest-running and most intensely fought lobbying campaigns in modern history.

The bill, the result of a decade of hearings, reformed pension plan operations by subjecting them to greater regulation and scrutiny. Business interests waged an unsuccessful campaign against it.

The final product was so complicated — weighing in at several hundred pages and 75,000 words — that the conference committee that approved it also wrote an explanatory report, itself more than 100 pages long.

At the time, lobbyists quipped that the bill’s acronym stood for Every Ridiculous Idea Since Adam. Now, with countless Washington careers pegged to making adjustments to the law, they’re chuckling all the way to the bank.

CAFE Standards, Ongoing
The auto industry, with backing from auto-worker unions, has been fighting efforts to raise fuel-efficiency standards since Congress first voted to establish them in 1975.

Higher corporate average fuel economy — or CAFE — standards have usually been included in debate on energy bills, but each time, Detroit’s major car makers have been swift to mount intensive, and expensive, campaigns ranging from traditional lobbying to grass-roots activism.

With fuel efficiency dropping in recent years even as gas prices soared, the issue seems likely to remain on the front burner for a while longer.

Tort Reform, Ongoing
Big-business interests have been trying to secure meaningful tort reform, in various iterations, since the mid-1970s.

And while corporations and trade groups have sunk tens of millions of dollars into campaigns to change the laws governing medical malpractice, product liability, and class-action lawsuits, it has taken until this year to achieve their first broad-spectrum success — the passage of a class-action reform bill that was in the works for a decade.

Through its efforts to defeat the bills, the Association of Trial Lawyers of America has emerged as one of the most well-heeled groups opposing the corporate agenda, not to mention a major booster of Democrats.

Republicans on and off Capitol Hill, meanwhile, have benefited from the largess of reform-hungry business groups. The Institute for Legal Reform, a coalition housed in the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, alone spent more than $18 million lobbying for tort reform in 2003, making it the second-highest spending organization of that year, a few spots ahead of the Chamber itself.

Tax Reform Act, 1986
The debate over tax reform lasted only two years, but corporate lobbyists made the most of them.

In 1984, then-President Ronald Reagan responded to a widespread perception that a loophole-ridden tax system allowed some corporations off scot-free at the expense of average taxpayers.

The process sent corporations into a panic. Dreading the loss of long-coveted tax write-offs, credits and breaks, they shelled out generously for Washington consultants. Indeed, several key Congressional staffers sensed the windfall lobbyists were enjoying and took the opportunity to leap into high-paying jobs downtown.

The debate, famously chronicled in “Showdown at Gucci Gulch,” by then-Wall Street Journal reporters Alan Murray and Jeffrey Birnbaum, helped give a jolt to a lobbying industry already growing rapidly in size and sophistication.

The more special interests perceived themselves under attack, the better life was for their paid representatives in Washington, a fact that earned the bill the nickname the “Lobbyists’ Relief Act of 1986.”

The fight could be reprised this year or next if President Bush decides to push a his promised plan to comprehensively reform the tax system.

Telecommunications Act, 1996
Next to financial services modernization, no bill employed so many lobbyists for such a sustained period of time as the Telecommunications Act of 1996.

Debate on a bill to update the nation’s telecom laws actually began in 1984. But while several draft versions were developed over the next several Congresses, discussion didn’t begin in earnest until 1994.

By then, telecom giants with already-robust lobbying teams in Washington loaded up on outside consultants, making for some very crowded meetings.

“There were times when there were as many as 100 people in a room,” said Gerald Cassidy, founder and chairman of the firm Cassidy and Associates, which represented AT&T in the fight. “I’ve never before or since seen anything like it.”

Almost as soon as the law was passed, however, technological leaps and shifts in the industry began rendering it archaic — meaning that a new rewrite is in the offing. Indeed, telecom giant AT&T is now in the process of being acquired by SBC Communications, meaning one of the largest players in the last debate almost certainly will not exist for this one.

Nevertheless, hordes of telecom lobbyists are already sharpening their knives over the law’s impending update. It’s a debate that many lobbyists say pits the rich against the richer. Among other things, this round finds increasingly consolidated phone companies battling against cable operators, with both sides jockeying to enter the other’s turf.

Whoever loses, the lobbyists are already winning.

Energy Bills, Ongoing
The search for a new comprehensive energy plan has kept a vast array of lobbyists busy since the last major bill passed in 1992 — with little progress to show for it.

Some skirmishes in the battle, such as the one over opening Alaska’s Arctic National Wildlife Refuge to oil drilling, have been simmering for over a quarter-century.

Lobbyists can thank the legislation’s vast scope for their abundance of work. It’s not just the oil, natural gas, coal, electric and nuclear power industries that are exposed, but also communities, labor groups, environmentalists and manufacturers of transmission lines, equipment and appliances, among others.

North American Free Trade Agreement, 1993
NAFTA, the most significant trade bill in a generation, spawned an epic battle between business and labor.

More than 1,100 American companies seeking open labor markets and free trade across borders gathered in various coalitions to push the pact.

They were met head-on by organized labor, which feared the loss of American jobs, and to a lesser extent by environmental and human-rights groups.

In a telltale sign of a massive lobbying campaign, skull sessions focusing on the bill were legion.

“There are more meetings than I can shake a stick at,” then-Commerce Secretary William Daley told National Journal that year about huddles he had to attend with lobbyists.

As Daley’s remark suggests, the effort represented a high-water mark of cooperation between the business community and the Clinton White House, which closely coordinated lobbying of wavering Members on both sides of the aisle.

While NAFTA is now a well-settled part of trade policy, similar fights are being replayed this year as corporate interests ramp up efforts to pass a Central American equivalent to NAFTA.

Health Care Reform, 1994
A bill doesn’t have to pass for lobbyists to profit from it.

Such was the case with the doomed effort by then-first lady Hillary Rodham Clinton to overhaul the nation’s health care system in 1994. While this effort is the only one on this list that went down to defeat, it produced robust paychecks for countless health care lobbyists.

At first, lobbyists had no work to do on the legislation, since it was crafted by a task force in closed-door meetings at the White House. But they sprung into action after the proposal was released.

The group then known as the Health Insurance Association of America scored the most memorable attack in the fight with a $15 million media blitz featuring a middle-class American couple dubbed Harry and Louise, who expressed befuddlement with Clinton’s plan. But they weren’t the only group fighting the bill.

Because of the reform plan’s breadth, it swept up a vast array of industries, including health insurers, drug companies, doctors, nurses, hospitals, medical equipment manufacturers, small businesses and labor unions.

All had problems with the plan, which — combined with strong Republican resistance to the measure — helped sink it.

Financial Services Modernization Act, 1999
This bill moved to the front of the agenda in the mid-1990s, but it was arguably in the works since the Great Depression, when the Glass-Steagall Act of 1933 was passed.

That would make it the longest-contested single piece of legislation of the 20th century. Indeed, work on the bill supported several generations of lobbyists — some in the same family.

Ed Yingling, for example, began work on the bill in 1974, years after his father, John H. Yingling, first started lobbying it as an outside consultant to Citibank.

The bill that finally passed in 1999 — popularly known as the Gramm-Leach-Bliley Act — was complex and wide-ranging. But above all, it ended two decades of debate about the ground rules for competition between different types of financial services companies. For the most part, the bill allowed companies to offer a much wider array of products.

While the battle lines shifted as the legislation developed, the bill’s broad reach galvanized Wall Street, commercial banking, smaller financial institutions and consumer groups.

The bill’s passage in November 1999 prompted The Wall Street Journal’s Washington Wire to note: “Banking lobbyists wave goodbye to a decades-long meal ticket.”

Tom Quinn, a lobbyist with the firm Venable, joked to the paper he asked lawmakers not to approve the measure until his three sons finished college — which, at the time of its passage, they all had.

Reached today, Quinn still chuckles over working the seemingly immovable bill: “It was a good run,” he says.

Government-Sponsored Enterprise Reform, Ongoing
The federally chartered home-loan giant, Fannie Mae, and its smaller cousin, Freddie Mac, have deployed over the last decade one of the most extensive, and expensive, lobbying teams ever assembled. The goal: to block Congressional attempts to tighten their regulatory reins.

In some cases, to hear some lobbyists tell it, the companies have kept lobbyists on retainer simply so they could not be hired to work against them.

Over the last six years, the companies combined have hired a breathtaking 86 lobbying firms and spent nearly $124 million on lobbying, according to the Center for Public Integrity.

But recently, the companies have been humbled by twin accounting scandals. Now, they are facing the prospect of legislation that would loosen their grip on the mortgage market. And as both face pressure to pare back their lobbying operations, this gravy train is beginning to dry.