Democratic aides may get cold shoulder from K Street after midterms

Democratic congressional aides aiming for a big payday from K Street have seen their value plummet with their party’s declining fortunes, according to corporate headhunters and lobbyists.

Less than two years ago, after President Obama’s coattails increased already-large Democratic majorities in Congress, Democratic congressional leadership aides could demand premium salaries from K Street firms. Lobbying salaries offered to Democratic staffers leaving Congress for K Street about a year ago ranged from $250,000 to $500,000. 

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It’s difficult to say how much those salaries have dropped now that the party appears poised to lose seats in the House and Senate, and possibly their majorities, in November. But corporate headhunters say Democratic salaries have probably peaked, and that they could go down further with a GOP victory in the fall. 

“It is likely we have seen the peak of Democratic salaries, with the exception of those folks involved in the ‘money committees,’ ” said Ivan Adler, a principal for the McCormick Group. “Money committees” are the congressional panels overseeing healthcare, taxes, energy and financial services.

Aides on committees or in leadership who lose their jobs because of a congressional shake-up could suffer the most. The minority party gets fewer committee and leadership aides than the majority. 

“The people really affected by this are in the committees or in leadership because if it flips there are a lot less people in [those jobs] in the minority than in the majority,” said Adler, who specializes in headhunting for lobbying jobs.

Democrats would be likely to flood the market if the GOP wins control of the House. 

“Hundreds and hundreds of professional staff will be out of work,” said Robert Raben, founder of the Raben Group. “There will be many more people than there will be jobs available.”

Other headhunters said Democratic lobbyists can still expect job offers since the Obama administration will be in power for at least another two years. 

“Regardless of what happens with the election, Democrats or Republicans with good bipartisan relationships will do well. The administration will still be in place for two or six years,” said Nels Olson, managing director at Korn/Ferry International. “I think there are still plenty of opportunities for Democrats.”

Rich Gold, head of the public policy and regulation group at Holland & Knight, agreed there will be jobs, but said aides will have less leverage in making salary demands. 

“There is still a market for hiring Democrats that was there a year ago. But maybe salary-wise, it has clicked down a bit,” Gold said. 

Demand will be greater, in contrast, for Republican aides. Gold has been looking to hire a senior Senate Republican aide for the past year and a half and believes that task has gotten a little harder due to the political climate. 

“That will be probably get more difficult because demand will go up for that in this town,” Gold said. 

Dirk Kempthorne, a former Republican Idaho governor and Interior secretary during the George W. Bush administration, was hired last week to replace Frank Keating, a former Republican Oklahoma governor, at the American Council of Life Insurers. In addition, Jay Perron, an aide to Rep. Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), was picked up this month by IBM to lobby for the computer hardware firm. 

The importance of party affiliation can be overstated. Gold and other lobbyists said a successful lobbyist depends on his or her skill set, not party affiliation. Several firms have made a concerted effort to keep their lobbing teams bipartisan since Democratic wins in 2006 and 2008.

For example, the Podesta Group has hired six new Republicans this Congress, according to the firm’s founder, Tony Podesta. He is also still pursuing some Democratic House aides to add to the firm’s roster of lobbyists. 

“My view is you go for real talent wherever you find it,” he said. “Folks who can do strategy and execution are rare and come from both sides.”

Some Democratic lobbyists feel former Capitol Hill aides in their party will have an especially tough time. Despite the fact that their party has been in control of Washington for several years, Democratic lobbyists say large trade associations and corporations never made the switch away from hiring Republican lobbyists. 

Since 2006, hiring of Democrats was “mostly retail,” according to one lobbyist. A newly hired Democrat was to be the “face but not in charge” of the lobbying operations.