K Street Takes Stock of Hill Prospects

Posted December 16, 2009 at 6:45pm

While the job market across the country has taken a tumble, K Street’s thirst for Capitol Hill talent is holding steady.

[IMGCAP(1)]Nearly one year into the Obama administration, lobby shops, law firms and corporations are still on the hunt for senior Democratic aides to add to their rosters.

“The job market in Washington for lobbyists has been relatively strong,— said Nels Olson, a headhunter with Korn/Ferry International.

As Congress prepares to finish health care reform and continues to try to overhaul the rules governing the financial services industry, lobbyists are hoping to lure several senior staffers to join their ranks before the spring, when the hiring spree is expected to cool ahead of the 2010 elections.

Democrats are still garnering higher salaries than their Republican counterparts. In particular, Senate Democratic leadership staff, high-ranking committee staff and chiefs of staff are in demand, according to headhunters.

While the peak of the market for Democratic aides may have already passed with lobby shops and corporations expecting Democrats to lose seats in the House and the Senate in the upcoming midterm elections, the going rate for key Senate Democratic aides runs about $400,000 to $500,000, headhunters said.

But even those salaries are out of reach for most Hill staffers; several lobbyists noted Congressional aides’ outsized expectations for going downtown. Law firms, in particular, are being cautious about hiring people without an existing book of client business.

“The market is definitely soft,— said Rich Gold, head of Holland & Knight’s government relations operation. “Particularly with firms giving guarantees, we’re not where we were two to three years ago.—

The pay disparity to lure Democratic and Republican aides from the Senate is also starting to disappear. “Senate Democrats will make more than Senate Republicans coming from ‘money’ committees,— McCormick Group’s Ivan Adler said, referring to panels such as Senate Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, and Finance. “But it won’t be as significant as D’s and R’s in the House.—

K Street Tested

As always, lobbyists-turned-staffers are hot commodities because they are less of a risk to take on, according to several lobbyists who are involved in making new hires.

People such as one-time Timmons & Co. lobbyist Dan Turton, the former House Rules Committee staff director who is now a deputy in the White House’s lobbying operation; former WellPoint lobbyist Liz Fowler, who was one of the main authors of the Senate Finance Committee’s health care bill; and former Williams & Jensen lobbyist Arshi Siddiqui, who is a senior policy adviser and tax counsel to Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), are all considered “K Street tested.—

Several lobbyists said they also had eyes out for senior Democratic aides such as Russ Sullivan, staff director on the Finance Committee, who is highly sought. Sullivan, who is comfortable working with K Street, has been viewed as a skilled operator in the health care fight, according to lobbyists.

Another name that lobbyists have on their wish lists is Yelberton Watkins, the longtime chief of staff to House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.). Rohit Kumar, who works for Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.), is also vaunted downtown for his strong policy experience and Senate ties. Kumar has worked for the chamber’s past three Republican leaders, including former Sens. Bill Frist (Tenn.) and Trent Lott (Miss.).

Some of the most sought-after Congressional aides have already been snapped up by lobby shops as the spigot toward downtown has started flowing.

Vickie Walling, longtime chief of staff to retiring Rep. John Tanner (D-Tenn.), jumped to Prime Policy Group this week. Stacey Alexander and Drew Goesl, senior Blue Dog Coalition staffers, headed to K Street this fall. Alexander, former chief of staff to Rep. Jim Matheson (D-Utah), exited for the all-Democratic firm Elmendorf Strategies. Goesl, former chief of staff to Rep. Mike Ross (D-Ark.), joined the lobbying boutique Capitol Counsel.

John Mahler, chief of staff to Rep. Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.), is expected to head to Oracle, according to several tech lobbyists. Mahler declined to comment, and Oracle spokesman Ken Glueck did not return a call or e-mail.

In the Money

Lobbyists are also looking to pluck financial services and tax staffers off the Hill. With the House finished with its version of the sector’s regulatory overhaul, senior House staffers who are banned from lobbying the House for one year could still push a client’s case in the Senate.

Tax staffers are also attractive, according to several hiring partners. With a major tax bill expected in 2011, staffers could wait out their lobby ban during 2010 and be ready to influence their former bosses and colleagues when lobbying on tax legislation starts in earnest.

But staffers looking to go downtown are also facing the ticking clock of the 2010 elections. Even if their bosses aren’t up for re-election, headhunters said, the window for most of the movement next year will be in the first quarter, especially for staffers with retiring bosses.

“Keep in mind the half life of a politician is just that,— McCormick Group’s Adler said. “Oftentimes, once you lose your rabbi, it can be more challenging to get a job.—