K Street Files: Labor Pains

Posted September 11, 2009 at 6:00pm

President Barack Obama rattled organized labor last week during his speech to a joint session of Congress. In making his case for overhauling the nation’s health care system, Obama proposed charging “insurance companies a fee for their most expensive policies, which will encourage them to provide greater value for the money.—

[IMGCAP(1)]But to many unions, whose members have taken wage cuts in favor of improved health care coverage inrecent years, Obama’s proposal could be a deal-breaker for an important Democratic political bloc.

“We have real concerns about anything that results in a tax on benefits,— one labor official said.

Another union official agreed, saying that the proposal “goes in the wrong direction for us.— The official called it an improvement from an earlier proposition to tax health care benefits as wages to help raise money for Obama’s $900 billion plan, but claimed that insurance companies likely would pass those levies on to workers. It’s also unclear how such a blueprint would affect self-insured plans, which by one estimate cover about half of unionized workers in the United States.

“They’ve been searching high and low both for revenue and to reduce costs. … Inadvertently, the architects end up increasing costs on people who’ve been struggling to keep up with the costs of health care,— the official said. “We’re going to work with them and try to fix this.—

Lobbyists Still Pariah. The White House and more recently the Treasury Department may have released their lobbying rules, but that doesn’t mean they are being followed.

Ethics lawyers say they are still receiving complaints from lobbyists because the rules are being misinterpreted.

“My only concern is that each and every Treasury employee dealing with these issues understands and properly implements these rules and does not refuse to meet with a lobbyist when there is no such restriction,— said Ken Gross, an ethics lawyer at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom, of the Treasury guidelines.

The Treasury Department, which released its rules Thursday, requires government officials to publicly note when they respond to general inquiries of lobbyists. The rules also ban anyone from having oral communications with agency officials concerning a pending application.

Still, the Treasury Department isn’t backing down when officials say “no— to lobbyists seeking meetings.

“The guidelines do not require Department employees to meet with outside persons, including lobbyists, when the meeting would otherwise be unproductive or inappropriate,— Treasury spokeswoman Meg Reilly said in an e-mail. “Even if a meeting is not prohibited by the guidelines, a determination must still be made whether the meeting is proper or useful under the circumstance.—

“Consequently, the Department does not accept every meeting requested by lobbyists or other outside persons,— she added.

Coffee With Juan. A 10-day public relations blitz by the Colombians to polish the country’s image with Washingtonians and tourists alike is coming to a close on Tuesday. But for a finale, the “Colombia is Passion— tour centered at Union Station will include photo ops with Colombian coffee icon Juan Valdez.

Sadly, for those hoping to snap a shot with Valdez’s loyal mule Conchita, this will not be the occasion. Conchita apparently is not permitted to hang out in Union Station.

The PR campaign, designed to help change people’s perceptions of Colombia as a violent nation besieged by drug cartels and paramilitary groups, has included handouts of free coffee and flowers. In addition, event organizers have placed large heart sculptures around Union Station and throughout town to showcase the culture, art and geography of the country.

“This is a good moment for perception to catch up with reality,— said Colombia’s ambassador to the United States, Carolina Barco.

The PR effort, which kicked off Sept. 5 and ends Tuesday, has not been without controversy. Last week, union organizers and other activists held a protest, saying the Colombia campaign was really an effort to jump-start approval for a stalled free-trade agreement between the U.S. and Colombia.

Barco said that while the Colombia is Passion campaign is not tied to the free-trade agreement and is actually a public-private sector effort, she hopes the PR campaign will help people understand the progress that Colombia has made in cleaning up the violence and drug trafficking that dominated the nation until recent years. And that could potentially help the FTA, she said.

Either way, the hearts campaign is packing up and heading next to New York City’s Grand Central Station, and the hearts will be sprinkled across the city’s five boroughs. After New York, the PR exhibit will head to China and Europe.

K Street Moves. Drew Goesl, the former chief of staff to Blue Dog Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), is now at Capitol Counsel, where he started work as a principal at the firm on Sept. 1. Goesl, 33, who spent eight years as a senior staffer for Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.), is from Texarkana, Ark., the hometown of Capitol Counsel founder John D. Raffaelli. “I’ve known a number of these people for years, they’re a great group, and the right fit at the right time for me,— Goesl said.

• Cornerstone Government Affairs is expanding by three. Greg McDonald, Eric Tober and Paul DiNino are joining the firm. McDonald joins Cornerstone after working at the 2008 Democratic National Convention Committee and the 2009 Presidential Inaugural Committee. Tober, a former staffer to Rep. Terry Bruce (D-Ill.), comes to Cornerstone from Steptoe & Johnson. DiNino, who has worked for Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.), is a longtime campaign and political consultant.

T.R. Goldman contributed to this report.

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