K Street clamors for Democratic Hill aides, who don’t want to leave

Demand for staffers exceeds the supply, lobbyists say

Jonathan Kott, left, who joined the lobbying firm Capitol Counsel earlier this summer, is a former aide to West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III.  (Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty Images file photo)
Jonathan Kott, left, who joined the lobbying firm Capitol Counsel earlier this summer, is a former aide to West Virginia Sen. Joe Manchin III. (Melina Mara/The Washington Post/Getty Images file photo)
Posted July 29, 2021 at 5:30am

It seems obvious enough that with their party in power, Democratic staffers on Capitol Hill would be in high demand: on K Street, in the Biden administration and in burgeoning political campaigns. But the level of clamoring for them, especially in the booming lobbying sector, has surprised even veteran observers of the revolving door. 

“The demand for Democrats on K Street is as high as I’ve ever seen in the 25 years I have placed lobbyists, especially in issue areas like health care,” said Ivan Adler, a longtime lobbyist headhunter who runs his own firm, Ivan Adler Associates. “Every shop is busy, and the supply of folks to help is not there.”

Democratic Hill aides are reluctant to leave, even for bigger paychecks, given that their party controls the House, Senate and executive branch. They have that rare opportunity to help craft once-in-a-generation legislative packages and, potentially, to help shape public policy for decades to come. 

“Democrats on the Hill want to stay there and help make change,” Adler said. 

Plus, some congressional staff members have their eyes on jobs in the Biden administration, where a recent history as a lobbyist can be a deal-breaker. One of President Joe Biden’s first executive actions was to reinstate an Obama-era restriction on recent lobbyists from joining the administration without a waiver.

Business at many K Street lobbying firms has been on the uptick this year, as clients seek to influence major congressional spending packages and possible tax increases and as they navigate the rule-makings and the regulatory agenda of the administration, including an executive order on competition. For many shops, business has downright boomed this year.

Democratic lobbyist Cristina Antelo, who runs the bipartisan shop Ferox Strategies, said her firm’s main challenge right now is staffing up.

“It’s a great problem to have,” she said, noting that the shop had already added four new lobbyists this year. 

‘Democrats like government’

Democratic lobbyist and former House leadership aide Steve Elmendorf said Democratic lobbyists are in high demand from clients but there’s a supply shortage.

“People in the government are reluctant to leave,” said Elmendorf, a partner and co-founder of the firm Subject Matter. “Democrats like government. They like doing things, so the mindset of a Democratic congressional staffer, particularly in the Senate, where they just got the majority, is you’re less likely to leave.” 

Elmendorf said it’s a good time for Democratic aides who are in the job market. 

Some firms have recruited Democratic aides from the Hill as well as Democratic lobbyists from other firms. 

Capitol Counsel hired Jonathan Kott, a former aide to Sens. Joe Manchin III of West Virginia and Chris Coons of Delaware, earlier this summer. And just this week, the firm said it was bringing on Jeff Carroll, staff director of the House Energy and Commerce Committee, as a partner. Carroll is a longtime top aide of the panel’s chairman, New Jersey Rep. Frank Pallone Jr. 

Kott, who joined Capitol Counsel as a partner, said it’s always difficult to leave Capitol Hill but the timing was right for him with his former bosses playing pivotal roles in policy negotiations. 

“When your party is in the White House and controls both chambers, firms need people with relationships in those offices, but they also need bipartisan teams,” Kott said. 

The bipartisan firm Klein/Johnson Group has been on a client growth spurt this year and just added a new Democratic lobbyist, Kate Lynch, as a partner. Lynch previously worked on the Hill for House Democrats and most recently lobbied at Cascade Associates. 

“Any time you have a power shift like we’ve just seen, K Street is a little bit of a lagging indicator of that,” said the firm’s Israel Klein, who previously worked on the Hill for Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer and Massachusetts Sen. Edward J. Markey

Klein said he expects to see more staffer churn, as more Democratic aides head to the administration or explore other opportunities. 

“You’re seeing a lot of these PR agencies, campaigns and advocacy groups all staffing up too,” he said. “Firms on K Street are just another one of the organizations that are looking to pick up good staff. … There are a lot of folks on the Hill who want to remain on the Hill, but there are also a lot who are seeing opportunities open up elsewhere who are ready to do that too. I don’t think we’ve seen the peak of the staffer shuffle yet.”