K Street Expects Thin ’08 Agenda

Posted January 4, 2008 at 6:24pm

Lobbyists expect 2008 to be a year of volatile partisan bickering from the campaign trail to the floor of the House and Senate, likely resulting in only a short list of legislative accomplishments that actually cross the finish line.

“In the past 12 months Democrats and Republicans weren’t playing very well together in the sandbox, and the next 12 months I predict it’s going to be even worse in the sandbox,” said GOP tax lobbyist Ken Kies of the Federal Policy Group.

Don’t expect comprehensive immigration or health care reform to pass; instead, lobbyists say they are urging Members to split off little pieces like increased visas for certain workers or a law mandating doctors to electronically prescribe medicines to their Medicare patients.

Patent reform legislation could make it. Ditto for popular measures such as a tax credit for companies that do research and development, especially if Congress puts together an economic stimulus package that could also address the housing and lending crisis. However, trade agreements and the reauthorization of No Child Left Behind would be much heavier lifts.

On the flip side, legislative gridlock easily could help lobbyists trying to fend off unwanted tax increases and sweeping climate-change legislation. “It’s almost always easier to stop things, but it’s going to be even easier this year with a very limited amount of time on the Congressional calendar and the politically charged atmosphere,” said Democratic strategist Chris Jennings of Jennings Policy Strategies.

Mark Merritt, president of the Pharmaceutical Care Management Association, said his group is taking cues from the White House contestants when it comes to health care.

“The presidential campaigns provide a good bellwether as to the kind of issues that are going to resonate in Congress this year,” Merritt said. “Issues that are new, involve change, issues that don’t involve hobbling around with the status quo but doing things differently.”

Merritt said his group is pushing for the bill to mandate electronic prescriptions by doctors for Medicare patients. “It’s compelling, it offers change plus safety for patients and savings for the government,” he said. “I think these are the issues that are going to succeed this year.”

Even so, Merritt doesn’t expect an easy road. He said PCMA plans to ramp up its e-prescribing lobbying effort with polling, blogging and TV and radio advertisements.

Jennings, a health care consultant and former senior health care adviser to President Bill Clinton, said Congress will likely take up legislation this year to avoid Medicare physician payment cuts and to jump-start e-prescribing. But don’t expect broader health care reforms to go anywhere this year beyond campaign discussions, he added.

“I think you’re going to see Congress dabbling in incremental reforms this year, but primarily it will be a year to lay the foundation for a broader debate on health care reform in 2009 and beyond,” said Jennings, who counts PCMA among his clients.

Despite long odds for the free-trade agenda, Bruce Josten, executive vice president at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said his group will put a lot of effort into getting Congress to take up pending agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea.

“A lot of people are going to tell you they’re going to do nothing, but my hunch is they’re going to move on some of them,” he said. “Clearly the business community will put a lot of effort behind getting them to be taken up.”

John Castellani, president of Business Roundtable, agreed that his group will push for all three trade agreements — no matter how steep the odds. BRT also will urge Congress to mandate e-prescribing and call for a move to electronic medical records.

Steve Elmendorf — the founder of Elmendorf Strategies, which represents the Coalition for Patent Fairness, which supports a House-passed patent reform bill and a version pending in the Senate — said he expects the Senate to take up the issue early this year, perhaps hitting the floor by February, where it will encounter fierce opposition by pharmaceutical companies in particular.

“There aren’t many bills that are around that have passed the House with a bipartisan majority,” Elmendorf said. “We believe if we got to the floor it would get more than 60 votes. The other side is going to aggressively try and kill it. It’s going to be a hard fight.”

The entertainment industry is hoping to get traction for one of its long-running issues. It has pushed for new laws to protect copyrighted materials, and the Chamber’s Josten said the larger business community and some unions are getting on board because they are worried about the impact that counterfeiting has on jobs and sectors beyond Hollywood, including pharmaceuticals.

“We’re starting to turn a corner with Congress on this,” Josten said. “I think we’re going to see legislation this year come out of Congress.”

Business groups will look to fend off increased taxes on hedge funds and private equity partnerships and prevent massive carbon-curving climate-change legislation. “It’s going to be a big fight,” Josten said.