The Few, the Employed: K Street Juggles Full Agenda, Tough Economy

Posted May 8, 2009 at 6:21pm

As President Barack Obama ends his 100-day honeymoon and begins his first term in earnest, two things are clear downtown: The 111th Congressional agenda is truly as ambitious as the most optimistic lobbyists had expected and the recession is having a real impact on K Street’s hiring practices.

While Washington isn’t facing massive layoffs, the influence business hasn’t been trying to woo politically-connected aides with the massive signing bonuses and compensation packages it would have offered in a more upbeat economy.

“It’s a tough time to be coming off the Hill because firms are looking to be very conservative right now given where the economy is,— said Rich Gold, head of Holland & Knight’s public policy practice.

“The economy is looking like it’s starting to pick up again, but there’s a difference between looking and doing it,— he added.

It’s not that the Washington job market is frozen shut. It’s just that firms and corporations have been a lot more cautious in their hiring.

Yet there are great jobs to be had by senior Democrats and even Republicans with management and executive branch experience.

In particular, Senate Democrats are golden. Senior Democratic Senate leadership staff and committee staff can command up to $700,000 if they jump to a contract lobby shop, although a more typical salary ranges from $300,000 to $500,000, according to headhunters.

Corporate and association jobs usually start around $300,000 for senior level hires, with stock options and other incentives.

“There’s a real demand for Senate Democrats,— said Ivan Adler, a headhunter with the McCormick Group. “They are like Willy Wonka’s golden ticket.—

Still, the euphoria among Democrats of winning the election has inflated what Hill aides think they can make downtown, according to several lobbyists.

With the lobbying ban prohibiting staffers from returning to much of their old stomping ground for a full year and most Hill aides having no book of business, firms are essentially subsidizing new Hill hires for at least a year.

But having a realistic view of salary potential doesn’t mean that staff, either Democrat or Republican, will not get a substantial raise.

“An LD for a member on the House side could be making $100,000. If they leave they can be making $300,000,— Adler said. “That’s not a bad deal when you look at the headlines.—

“It’s purely because of the old-fashioned economic supply and demand equation,— he added.

Republicans looking for jobs aren’t completely out of luck.

GOPers with management experience and those with expertise in trade or regulated industries like nuclear power are in good positions to find corporate jobs. And their willingness to take less money than their Democratic counterparts also works in their favor, headhunters say.

Of all the job sectors downtown, however, it’s the association market that has been hardest hit, according to industry watchers.

As its members pay reduced dues or fail to pay their dues at all, several associations have started looking to fill positions from within, while at the same time enduring difficult layoffs.

“Every last one of the [trade association] CEOs are painfully aware of the impact of the economy on their members and are trying to respond accordingly,— said Leslie Hortum, headhunter at Spencer Stuart.

Lobby shops and law firms have also taken a hit in the current economic environment, with firms doing a lot more vetting of potential Hill hires.

“People are very cautious about hiring people without books of business,— Holland & Knight’s Gold said. “Typically you lose money the first year [on staff coming off the Hill], so if [you are in] the 80 percent of firms that had a down first quarter — and may have a down year — how are you going to bring in someone who is going to lose you more money?—

R&R Partners’ Mike Pieper agrees. While the communications firm, which also lobbies, has expanded its clientele this year, it hasn’t added to its head count.

“We are simply not in the mode to hire people,— Pieper said. “Even though we’ve expanded our business, we are just doing more with less.—