Street Talk: Tight With Members, Not So Tight With Staff

Posted May 1, 2009 at 6:07pm

It’s the lobbyists’ paradox: As they get older, the Hill gets younger.

It’s true that contacts forged over 30 years result in friendships with people who are usually among the most senior in Congress, be they staff or Members.

[IMGCAP(1)]But with all due respect, lobbyists whose clients need to explain the technicalities of beach renourishment or make the case for replacing the word “and— with “or— in clause five of subsection C of part IV of a particular bill are better off talking to staff in the first place; few Members are that far down in the weeds.

And that rankles a few of the older set downtown.

“This does bother and haunt a lot of guys. They think it’s demeaning to them, 40, 50, 60 years old, to have to beg some 24-, 25-, 26-year-old staffer,— notes Pat

Williams of the Cormac Group, one of the few, if not the only, lobbyists in town whose father and grandfather were also lobbyists.

“A lot of people, the more money they make and more time they’ve been doing this, they think they’re above the junior staffers,— Williams said. “I don’t see it as begging. I started on the Hill younger than any staff I deal with.—

It’s hard to know how prevalent either attitude is because the business practices of the lobby industry are known only anecdotally; few people study it systematically and few people outside the industry really know what lobbyists do to earn fees of $2,000 to $30,000 a month per client.

(It’s actually a question of supply and demand; there are only so many lobbyists with access to key Members, so they set the top market price. And while the fees might be large on a per-lobbyist basis, the fees are essentially nothing for companies who measure their revenues in the billions of dollars.)

Most older lobbyists take a more nuanced view when they run up to the Hill: They suck it up and talk to whomever they need to; some claim to actually enjoy it. Many lobbyists, no matter how successful they are now, still look back with nostalgia-tinged joy at their years on the Hill.

“It’s the most invigorating thing in the business, finding that 30-year-old really bright girl or guy who is an LA to a new Senator,— said one longtime Democratic lobbyist who owns a small boutique firm. “It’s kind of fun taking them information that makes them look good to the boss.—

Adds Williams & Jensen lobbyist Bert Carp: “That’s the way the process works. We all got to be those 25-year-old guys. Now we’re working them.—

The bigger question, though, is how best to work them — especially now that it’s against the law to have lobbyist-sponsored happy hours or lunches at Tortilla Coast or pay a dime of expenses for any staffer. And while many lobbyists might quietly appreciate the fact that they no longer have a professional obligation to entertain staff, for many old-school lobbyists, it’s a definite change in how they are used to doing business.

“There’s a certain comfort level people have when they know you,— groused another veteran advocate. “Now,— he said, “the only thing you can do with staff is go up and meet with them. How do you get the measure of somebody if all you can do is sit across from them in a meeting?—

Some lobbyists say a cup of coffee at Cups or a quick lunch in the Senate or Rayburn cafeterias, which many staffers will still do — and pay their own way doing so — is sufficient to create a minimal lobbyist-staffer bond.

Others find the gap between the lobbyist who has known the staffer’s boss for 25 years and the staffer who is barely 25 years old too great to bridge. Their solution is simple: Hire some younger associates.

“You need to have a cross section of age groups, and of gender and race,— said Carp, who was President Jimmy Carter’s assistant domestic policy director. “All of our lobbying teams look like that, and any good Washington office looks like that as well.—

Most longtime lobbyists, however, say they use another, highly effective tool when talking to staff, one that’s hard to resist — they make it clear that they know their boss.

“It’s funny. I know a hell of a lot of Members, and most of the the guys I know are very senior Members because I knew them as puppies — we were kind of puppies together,— recalls Dan Tate Sr., who moved to D.C. in 1969 right out of law school to work for then-Sen. Herman Talmadge (D-Ga.). “The problem is, I don’t know their staff.

“So most of the time I’ll say something to give them an idea that their boss and I go back a ways and it’s not a casual relationship, that we’ve killed a snake together,— added Tate, who spent four years as Carter’s chief Senate lobbyist before going downtown 28 years ago.

Another longtime lobbyist, a Republican, was blunter.

“Occasionally, you’ll have a situation where the staff will say, I won’t do that.’

“For most lobbyists, it stops there. So you have to execute one occasionally — we used to call it ceremonial staff destruction’— — he said, referring to the tactic of going directly to the Member to complain about a staff decision. “In which case,— the lobbyist added, “some of them will sue for detente.—