K Street Files: Lobbying the Lobbyists

Posted July 22, 2008 at 6:33pm

K Streeters are beginning to lose count of the number of times they’ve been summoned to meetings to discuss the dicey debate over a bill that would extend a package of popular tax credits.

[IMGCAP(1)]On Tuesday, Democratic staffers from the Senate Finance Committee and from Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid’s (D-Nev.) office convened about 40 lobbyists to, once again, press them to support a Democratic plan to extend the cuts.

According to sources at the meeting, the chief staffers included Russ Sullivan, staff director of the Senate Finance Committee; Jon Selib, chief of staff to Finance Chairman Max Baucus (D-Mont.); and Reid aide Bob Greenawalt.

Lobbyists who attended included in-house and outside consultants for such companies and groups as American Express, Citigroup, Morgan Stanley, JPMorgan, General Electric, IBM, Procter & Gamble, Caterpillar, Microsoft, the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, the Information Technology Industry Council and the National Association of Manufacturers.

Lobbyists have been caught in the middle of a standoff between a Democratic plan that calls for the tax extenders

to be offset with tax increases that would affect mainly hedge-fund managers — by delaying tax cuts for interest earned overseas — and eliminating deferred compensation in some offshore accounts.

Senate Republicans have said the temporary tax extensions should not be offset by permanent tax increases.

The staffers’ message, lobbyists who attended say, was that a vote on a Senate version of the extenders bill, S. 3125, could come next week and the Senate Democrats need the support of K Street.

“Russ Sullivan said, ‘We need your help in moving forward and telling people this package as outlined, possibly with modifications, is worth supporting,’” recalled one participant, speaking on condition of anonymity. “He said, ‘Those of you willing to sign up for this task, we would appreciate it. We look forward to working with you now and in the future.’”

Another lobbyist who attended the meeting said the message he came away with was that if lobbyists don’t help support the measure, they shouldn’t count on the help of those staffers in the future.

“They made the point that if you’re not with us now, well, it’s been nice working with you, but we won’t be talking with you next year,” said this second lobbyist.

This lobbyist added that many business lobbyists expect that the tax-credit package will get finished during a lame-duck Congress, but the staffers’ message was there isn’t likely to be a lame duck. “I’m increasingly hearing that Democrats are not bluffing,” this lobbyist said.

Cashing Out. Mortgage Bankers Association President and CEO Jonathan Kempner announced on Tuesday that he will step down at the end of December after seven and a half years with the group and during a time of turmoil for the industry.

In particular, Kempner has come under fire for taking on a large mortgage for the group’s new headquarters at 1331 L St. NW just as the mortgage market fell. So far, the MBA, which takes up floors two through five, has no other tenants in the 12-story building.

“There is no doubt that the Washington market is slowing, but we are where we want to be,” said Cheryl Crispen, a spokeswoman for the group.

The association has also undergone a “reduction in staff” of 12 people over the past six months, according to Crispen. She also declined to discuss the individuals who left, but she said the association is in the process of bringing on four hires in its government relations department.

Kempner has not lined up his next move yet but said he is looking forward to exploring his options. Former MBA Chairman John Courson will succeed Kempner beginning in January.

MBA, which has some 150 employees, represents the ailing real estate finance industry.

Kempner, 57, in an interview, noted that most people who run trade associations leave after five to six years, and he said the change will be healthy for the group.

“It’s a good way to get new ideas and new blood,” he said. “Personally, I get to do something new, which is always exciting at this point in my life.”

MBA Chairman Kieran Quinn said Kempner’s announcement came as a surprise, but he knew Kempner had likely been considering his plans beyond MBA.

Kempner said he will stay on until Dec. 31 and will be working closely with Courson to ensure a “seamless” transition into the new leadership.

Courson will be named chief operating officer on Aug. 1, and he already has extensive ties to the company. He was chairman of the board of directors in 2003 and was brought in by Kempner this year as a consultant on state and local real estate affairs.

Industry estimates put MBA’s yearly budget at about $50 million. Kempner is credited with doubling the trade group’s reserve fund from $35 million to $70 million during his seven years there, a legacy that will help them after he leaves.

“He left us in great shape to go forward,” Quinn said.

Anna Palmer contributed to this report.

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