K Street Paradox
If there is a shortlist for the godfather of modern lobbying, 66-year-old Gerald Cassidy, the founder of Cassidy & Associates, surely would be on it.
Cassidy, who opened his shop in 1975, helped pioneer appropriations lobbying, starting with clients such as Boston University, for whom he secured the targeted chunks of spending known as earmarks. Over the next three decades, Cassidy & Associates became one of the biggest firms in Washington, D.C., as its roster of clients and employees swelled along with the number of earmarks in the federal budget.
In recent years, appropriations lobbying has become mired in controversy and plagued by corruption scandals. And now that both the House and Senate have passed reforms that could mean sweeping changes for the business of lobbying, Cassidy himself, in an interview last week, declared that he not only supports many of the reforms but would go further when it comes to money in politics.
“I would love to see public financing,” he said in an interview at Cassidy & Associates headquarters, which are decorated in the deep blues and golden yellows of official Washington. “And I would go along with limits on the contributions from lobbyists. It would take away any public suspicion that money makes a difference.”
The idea of a major campaign contributor like Cassidy coming out for public financing was one of the ironies to emerge from the conversation with Cassidy.
While he had sharp words for the profession he helped shape and on the expansion of earmarks, he also defended the appropriations process.
“He certainly is widely regarded as the pioneer in really aggressively pursuing earmarks for clients,” said Steve Ellis, vice president for programs at Taxpayers for Common Sense, which campaigns against earmarks and government spending. “He didn’t create the earmark — that happened a long time ago — but he exploited the use of appropriations earmarks and targeting them to particular entities.”
Ellis said that when it comes to the history of earmarks, Cassidy’s work for university clients in particular was seen as a “successful business model that has been emulated writ large.” In 1996, the federal budget contained a little more than 3,000 earmarks. By 2005, that number had grown to more than 16,000, Ellis said.
Cassidy, who is a Democrat, criticized the expansion of earmarks especially under the Republican-controlled Congress. But he acknowledged that his clients — and he himself — benefited.
“Why should I take a detour when everybody else is heading in the right direction? No, I have to do what’s best for my clients,” he said. “But I think there was a decline in the amount of information provided in the process of deciding on these earmarks.”
Even though he counts among his partners former key GOP aides — including Cassidy & Associates Chief Operating Officer Gregg Hartley, who formerly was an aide to then-House Majority Whip Roy Blunt (R-Mo.) — Cassidy blasted House Republicans’ coziness with members of his own profession.
“The effort to work so closely and bring lobbyists so much into the practice of writing legislation and whipping bills is probably not a good idea,” Cassidy said. “Over the last 12 years, you had an effort to move the lobbying community toward the Republican Party. It was a natural inclination, but it was an inclination taken too far. Anyone would want to see more of their people in prominent positions, but it became an organized effort and it became something that linked the lobbying community and the Congressional community too closely.”
Cassidy urges Republicans in the firm to be “partisan and active,” but he added, “The system worked better when contributions were smaller, and it would work even better if you had public financing.”
Cassidy said he doesn’t mind the recent gift ban and other reforms of lobbying and earmarks, but added, “It seems to me to be the wrong end of the problem. The real issue is money and how much money there is in politics.”
One of the potential consequences of the reforms, lobbyists say, is that the Member-lobbyist relationship easily could become even more focused on fundraising, since those interactions would not be curbed.
All told, Cassidy said, the pressure of raising money and the influence of campaign consultants has resulted in a lobbying environment that is simply less enjoyable than it once was.
“I think some legislators who were around 32 years ago when I started would agree with me that it’s less fun,” he said. “The overly partisan nature of the Congress rubs off on the lobbying community; it is less congenial and less collegial and less fun.”
As the scandals involving former lobbyist Jack Abramoff and ex-Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.) have unfolded, Cassidy lamented the stain to his profession.
“It’s unfortunate, because lobbying had come along so far over the last 30 years,” he said. “It had really reached a point where it was being treated as a professional service, and treated with respect. I still think that will be the case, but certainly this is an obstacle to the standing of lobbyists that I would like to see.”
Whatever his thoughts on the number of earmarks, Cassidy said that the funding measures have helped bring economic opportunity to rural areas or states with smaller populations and have led to developments in science and technology.
“Members of Congress ought to have the right to decide those issues in many cases — not just the bureaucrats downtown who weren’t elected by anybody,” Cassidy said. “You look at the administration, all administrations, and they have more earmarks than Congress does by a factor of 10.”
Cassidy said he does expect earmark and lobbying reforms to change appropriations lobbying.
“The more transparency, the more you’re going to have to defend the project you’re seeking funding for. If it’s a medical center, you’re going to have to provide a lot of information about why this is a special circumstance, what this is going to do for the community, what it’s going to do for the field,” he said. “Members having to identify themselves with the project and argue the project, that’s going to require much more of that from lobbyists.”
Some of his colleagues said they weren’t surprised by Cassidy’s comments.
“One of the things that Gerry Cassidy has always argued for, whether it’s been in the campaign finance system or whether it’s lobbying, has been for transparency,” said Larry Grossman, who runs the Grossman Group.
In recent years, Cassidy & Associates has shifted its business model away from an appropriations-focused practice, with 80 percent of new clients now coming from policy areas.
In the meantime, appropriations has become a more competitive environment, with several former Cassidy & Associates lobbyists starting rival shops, such as Fabiani & Co., Cornerstone Government Affairs, The National Group and the Grossman Group.
Cassidy, who said he has no plans to retire, is reluctant to go into detail about the longer-term vision for the firm.
“Most times when I do something, everyone — not everyone — but some people follow. I’d at least like to get where I’m going before they follow.”
But, he said, “More people from around the world are coming to Washington to seek action by our government, and it’s an area that we intend to concentrate on a great deal more.”