Street Talk: No Place Like the Hill for Former Lobbyists

Posted July 17, 2009 at 5:49pm

One boss vs. several; real-time information vs. second- and third-hand gossip; keeping your money vs. spending it on after-tax campaign contributions; telling 20-somethings what to do vs. having to make entreaties before them. Not to mention a reputation as a selfless public servant vs. one as a leech.

[IMGCAP(1)]Capitol Hill vs. K Street. Leaving money aside, a job on the Hill beats a job downtown almost every time.

Not that money can always be left aside. For many people, a lobbyist’s elevated salary is a necessity. But if you factor out those folks who need to earn a boatload of dough — either because of familial obligations or having ratcheted up to a lifestyle that’s impossible to drop — people generally prefer a job on the Hill.

“If the pay were equal,— notes one former lobbyist who returned to the Senate, “nobody’d ever leave.—

Lots of K Streeters, it seems, are returning to Congress, and the reasons are as varied as the people. But the reverse revolving door does provide a nice opportunity to get a fresh take on the lobbying business from people who only recently left — and quickly realized what they don’t miss.

“Fundraising,— says the lobbyist who returned to the Senate. “First and foremost. That’s a pain in the ass.—

The intensity of the money chase is such that one trade association lobbyist turned House chief of staff says that during the prime fundraising months of March, June and September, “I would have so many Members of Congress — sometimes it’s the chiefs, but generally it’s the Members — call that they would routinely fill my voice mail box.—

Says another Congressional staffer who recently returned from a lobbying gig: “The fundraising demands and expectations nowadays are such that people treat $1,000 like teenagers treat their allowance: You get a thank you half the time.—

Ex-lobbyists are also quick to note the dramatic contrast in access to information for staffers versus people working downtown.

“It’s a constant grind for information,— says another House chief about his lobbying career. The biggest problem, say ex-lobbyists, is just getting a phone call returned.

“I knew I would have to call 20 staff members a day to set up meetings. I knew I might get one or two on the phone. The rest I would send e-mails to, and 90 percent of them would not get back to me,— recalls a former House staffer who went downtown for a few years and recently returned to a senior House job.

“I had clients screaming at me, Where is that meeting with Sen. X? Why hasn’t he called you back?’ And I’d say, I’ve e-mailed the guy seven times.’ You become a pest to somebody even though you’ve never spoken to them.—

Eventually, the ex-lobbyist says, he perfected his communications technique. “I tried to keep my e-mails to three to five sentences: We’ve never met and we represent X, Y and Z Corp. I’m hoping we can come in to talk.’ I got a lot more replies with that than sending 11 bullet points and two attachments.—

On the Hill, notes the chief of staff, the information quality is simply at a “different level.—

“Even the most connected lobbyist is not getting real-time information, the ebb and flow of things,— he says.

“Take cap and trade,— the lobbyist continues, referring to the House-passed energy legislation. “There were people downtown who never thought it would happen. But we knew it would from the beginning. You’d see groups coming together. When you’re outside [the Hill], you’re not seeing the entire degree, you’re just seeing little chunks.—

Many ex-lobbyists have none-too-fond memories of their clients, too.

“On Capitol Hill, most of the time you have just one boss. The chief of staff can be a nice guy or an asshole, but as long as the boss is happy, you’re OK. Downtown, you have to make yourself valuable to many people,— says the second chief of staff.

Expectations are high as well. “Clients want you to get people to sponsor things, drop bills, meet with Members and Senators, and you have to keep telling them: No, you’re going to meet with staff,’ and No, they don’t care about issue X, they care about issue Y.’—

The former lobbyist who is now a senior House staffer recalls clients demanding to know, “Where are our meetings with Judiciary Committee Democrats? — at which you will have no input.’ We become potted plants once the movie starts.—

Ex-lobbyists also recall, with varying degrees of scorn or amusement, the giant meetings of a score or more of consultants held over a single big lobbying battle.

“I don’t miss being one more schlub around a table being told to go get three more Members — any Members — to sign some stupid letter,— recalls another ex-lobbyist turned Senate staffer.

Another Senate staffer remembers the scene. “You’d walk in and, it was absurd, you’d realize how much money was being spent, that somebody had been hired to handle one individual Member. There was always the Ted Stevens consultant, for example,— says the former lobbyist who is now a Senate staffer, referring to the powerful Alaska Republican who had been chairman of the Senate Appropriations and Commerce, Science and Transportation committees.

Of course, lobbying does have its bright spots — three, to be specific: The intellectual challenge of quarterbacking a lobbying campaign for a complex issue, the pay, and, most importantly to some people, the fact that you are far more in control of your time than you are with a job on Capitol Hill.

“I do not see my son between Monday and Thursday,— says the ex-lobbyist with the senior House job. At his old lobby job, he says, “I did conference calls from all over the city. If I had to go to Target with my kid, I used my BlackBerry. You can do 80 percent of your work from your BlackBerry.—

Finally, it’s hard to completely ignore the ignominy into which lobbying has fallen — even if lobbyists themselves realize that the criticism involves a large dose of hypocrisy.

It’s something that one ex-lobbyist is happy to be done with, especially when compared to his current status as a House chief of staff.

“When you come out of the Metro and are walking to the office building and you pass between Longworth and Rayburn and see the Dome,— he says, “it’s a pretty sweet feeling.—