Lobbyists Strike Hard Before Summer Torpor Sets In

Posted July 3, 2008 at 4:04pm

With precious little time remaining on the legislative calendar, K Street is mobilizing this week to capitalize on the next five weeks before Congress heads full-scale into August recess and the campaign season.

From a tobacco-regulation bill to measures extending popular tax credits and a mortgage-rescue package, lobbyists are racing against the clock.

House Oversight and Government Reform Chairman Henry Waxman (D-Calif.) has said the House is poised for a floor vote on the tobacco issue, a bill more than a decade in the making, soon.

The bill would, for the first time, put tobacco products under the regulatory purview of the Food and Drug Administration. While many tobacco interests oppose it, others, such as Philip Morris, are on board.

“This is really a historic piece of legislation,” said Dick Woodruff, chief lobbyist for the American Cancer Society, which spent the July Fourth recess drumming up grass-roots support back in Members’ districts for the bill. The group had volunteers ready with their message for Members at local parades and other Independence Day events.

“The bill would eliminate advertising and targeted marketing aimed specifically at children,” Woodruff added. “And it would direct the industry to begin listing all of the poisons that it adds to its products.”

One tobacco industry lobbyist agreed that the bill stands an excellent chance of passing the House within the next few weeks. “Momentum on this legislation seems to be gaining,” said this lobbyist, who would only speak if not quoted by name. “Leadership is actively working through any outstanding issues.”

Another top issue likely to consume much of the lobbying rhetoric in the coming weeks, not surprisingly: the rising cost of oil. And the cry for help from Congress is coming from some unusual spots.

Jade West, senior vice president of government relations for the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors, said that unlike years past, the top issue of concern for her members — who distribute wholesale goods nationwide — are unbearable fuel prices.

“It is an issue that has taken off with our members like nothing we have ever seen,” said West, whose companies typically focus more on tax policy. “It now tops health care, tax policy and card check.” (Card check refers to a union-backed proposal that is widely despised by pro-business groups because it would allow workers to unionize more easily.)

West said her lobbying message, coming straight from her member companies, is that Congress must “do something, damn it. Just do something. Our guys need to know that Congress understands this is an urgent need and should trump almost anything else.” She said NAWD supports alternative fuels, conservation, offshore drilling and pretty much any other option to bring fuel costs down.

One issue that technology lobbyists say has a realistic chance of gaining traction during these five weeks is a bill that would set standards for electronic medical records and nudge the medical community toward health IT.

“We actually think this is the one issue where there could be a breakthrough,” said Ralph Hellmann, the top lobbyist for the Information Technology Industry Council. “It would speed up and move along the growing trend toward electronic medical records.”

And he noted, “It’s bipartisan. This is one that we’ll probably push the hardest because it has the best chance of getting to the president’s desk.”

Hellmann’s group, like most everyone in the broader business community, also will take the next five weeks to focus on a popular tax-extenders bill. That bill renews tax credits for companies doing research and development as well as for renewable-energy programs, among others.

Although both Democrats and Republicans say they favor the extenders, the two parties are locked in a standoff over whether the cuts should be paid for by revenue raisers. The Republicans argue that the bill does not need a payfor and have blocked its passage thus far.

Bruce Josten, a top lobbyist with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, said Sept. 30 is the drop-dead date for businesses wanting the tax credits extended.

If some credits, like the one for research and development, are not extended by that date, public companies will need to refile their financial statements for the year because there will be a “material difference” in their earnings and profits, Josten explained.

“You’re talking real impact here,” he said. Such filings could “quickly have a depressive effect on stock prices. … Every company will take a hit.”

In addition to rallying support on the Hill for the tax-credit package, the chamber also expects the Senate to move soon on legislation that would readjust the Medicare reimbursement rate for doctors. He also said that housing and energy matters will be a priority.

Democratic lobbyist Steve Elmendorf, who runs Elmendorf Strategies, agreed that a bill to rescue ailing homeowners will be at the top of the list along with the tax-extenders package.

“Those two are the most pressing,” he said. On the tax extenders, he added, “there’s enormous pressure on the business community to lobby Republicans to get it passed.”

But stay tuned for new issues to pop up.

“There’s always a surprise issue or two,” said Democratic lobbyist David Castagnetti of Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti.

Especially in an election year.