Lobbyists who’ve been around a long time can regale younger generations with tales of freely roaming the Capitol — parking steps from an entrance to the temple of democracy and leisurely loitering by elevators to grab members en route to the House or Senate floors.
Those days, of course, vanished long ago. And now COVID-19 has shifted the influence industry online. But the deadly Jan. 6 assault on the Capitol, a horror to anyone on K Street familiar with the complex’s hallowed halls, has ignited a fresh fear among lobbyists and activists.
What if, they worry, new security measures keep them at a perpetual distance from the lawmakers and staff they aim to influence, long after the pandemic ends?
Access is currency on K Street, and the subtleties of in-person relationship-building can be at least as important as crafting a salient policy message. Big-money lobbyists are likely to regain such interactions through fundraising events when they return in full force post-pandemic, but rank-and-file lobbyists and advocates for lower-dollar influence campaigns say they’re troubled at the prospect of no longer having access to the Capitol complex.
“It’s a big concern for us,” said Paul Miller, a longtime lobbyist and president of the National Institute for Lobbying & Ethics. “Does the technology make it easier for them to avoid constituents and folks like us who are up there speaking on their behalf?”
Miller said he’s working with lawmakers on a forthcoming plan aimed at balancing post-pandemic security measures with access for constituents and advocates to the people’s House and Senate. He expects to release details in the coming weeks, he said.
Even some former members, now lobbyists, say they worry about permanent restrictions prohibiting current lawmakers and staff from meaningful interactions with constituent and advocacy groups.
Former Sen. Norm Coleman, a Republican from Minnesota, said the COVID-19 restrictions coupled with the Capitol breach “by thugs and hooligans” will make it “much more difficult to get access to the people’s representatives.”
“The heightened security will lessen the ability of the folks who do serve a purpose, not just lobbyists,” said Coleman, a senior counsel at the lobbying and law firm Hogan Lovells.
He recalled his own constituents, such as farmers, who would come for meetings to his Capitol office and said such interactions in the future will be “greatly impaired. We are going to have to figure out ways to use technology to continue to stay in touch.”
Security remains top of mind for many downtown, as well as those with whom they’re often at odds on policy fights.
Lisa Gilbert of the liberal-leaning Public Citizen said Zoom advocacy efforts and online fly-ins to huddle with lawmakers and staff were likely to persist after the pandemic. She said she hopes that the enhanced security around the complex will be deemed unnecessary, allowing groups such as hers, post-pandemic, to return to “holding events featuring the Capitol as the backdrop.” But, she noted, “I wouldn’t rank that higher than what folks are grappling with now, trying to keep everyone safe.”
“If you’re someone like me, a public interest advocate, you can’t get access to members by going to fundraisers,” McGehee said in an interview. “The way you got face-to-face access, first it was off the floor, then they closed that down. You could stand out and wait for them to walk across the street. If this gets shut down further, then you’re left with trying to get an appointment, and that can be almost impossible.”
Lobbyists also worry that enhanced security measures will change the character of Hill hallways as clients and ubiquitous school groups and advocates-for-a-day are kept away.
“Nothing made me happier when I was up on Capitol Hill with a client organization, doing a fly-in or day of meetings, than seeing school groups, seeing groups of people wearing the same colored shirts, or lab coats, or flight attendants in uniform,” said longtime lobbyist and former Hill staffer Mike Fulton. “This is what it’s all about, when Capitol Hill is brimming with people who have something to say and are going around and learning how government works and having their voice heard in person.”
Fulton, a member of the grassroots-focused Advocacy Association, noted that the safety of those on Capitol Hill should take precedence, but added, “The most effective communication is person-to-person.”
Joe Franco, president of the Advocacy Association, said his group plans to write to congressional leaders seeking clarity about both health and security guidelines and what to expect for in-person advocacy going forward.
“We want Congress to open up,” Franco said. Virtual advocacy has worked well, he added, but “there is definite value to having in-person meetings and having that access.”
Another longtime lobbyist and former staffer, Stewart Verdery, who runs the firm Monument Advocacy, said K Street should expect new security protocols after COVID-19.
“You won’t be able to just hop out of a cab and be 20 feet from Russell,” he said, referring to one of the Senate office buildings. “They’re going to have a broader perimeter. But I’m not worried we’ll not be able to get in and do our work.”