GM rebuilds D.C. lobbying force as it enters post-bailout era

General Motors is quietly rebuilding its D.C. lobbying force as it tries to shed the stigma of a federal auto bailout that critics derided as setting up “Government Motors.”

The automaker, which is preparing for one of the largest initial public stock offerings in U.S. history, was among the top 15 lobbying powerhouses in Washington as recently as 2007, when the company spent $14 million to influence Congress and federal agencies.

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But the recession, the financial crisis and the decline in auto sales forced GM to plead for a taxpayer bailout in late 2008. The company was pushed into bankruptcy only a few months later.

GM pared back its activities on K Street during the federal bailout but never shut them down entirely, despite the pleas of consumer advocates and some members of Congress who were irked that the carmaker was lobbying while receiving $50 billion in taxpayer aid.

Since emerging from bankruptcy last July, the company — which remains 61 percent taxpayer-owned — has retooled its lobbying operation into a smaller but still wide-ranging advocacy effort.

GM spent $6.9 million on lobbying in the four quarters since exiting bankruptcy last year, roughly half the amount the company paid out in 2008.

The lobbying team is navigating a fractious Washington climate in which many Republicans continue to criticize the bailouts as being an unwarranted intrusion into the free market. The Obama administration, meanwhile, has tried in recent weeks to take credit for turning the company around.

GM revamped its lobbying office by hiring a new leadership team, bringing on more than a dozen outside consultants and remaking its in-house staff of lobbyists.

“As GM has emerged as a new company, it’s important we re-establish a strong government relations team to have our voice heard in the policymaking process,” GM spokesman Greg Martin said.

“We want to have the right presence in Washington to tell a very good story about the progress we’ve made and how we are investing billions in facilities and technologies, bringing thousands back to work and making consumer gains with new cars and trucks,” Martin added.

Last December, the automaker named Bob Ferguson and John Montford, two former top telecommunications lobbyists and advisers, to helm the car company’s government affairs team. Ken Cole, the longtime Washington office chief, left GM this year for Pfizer’s government relations office.

Cole had been with the GM office since 2001, when the previous head, Andrew Card Jr., left to become chief of staff to then-President George W. Bush.

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Since late last year, GM has steadily hired a roster of 14 of Washington’s most prominent lobbying firms: Clarke Lytle & Geduldig; The Normandy Group LLC; Podesta Group; The Duberstein Group; Ben Barnes Group; Dutko Worldwide LLC; The Nickles Group LLC; Navigators Global LLC; Public Strategies Inc.; GrayLoeffler LLC; Greenberg Traurig LLP; Davis & Harman LLP; Washington Tax Group; and Bob Moss Associates.

Some of the lobbying firms, such as Greenberg Traurig, worked with the company before it filed for bankruptcy, but others, including Podesta Group, are new additions.

The lobbyists are working on a wide range of tax, automotive, energy and financial regulatory issues, according to congressional records, but there haven’t been any high-profile campaigns so far.

Despite the re-entry into lobbying work, the company’s political action committee (PAC) has mostly stayed out of the midterm elections.

The PAC has given less than $50,000 this cycle, split roughly evenly between the committees of Democratic and Republican candidates. In contrast, the company PAC spent more than $700,000 during the 2008 election cycle, according to federal records.

The company’s lobbying revamp comes ahead of the carmaker’s initial public offering of stock, which will help repay the taxpayer bailout. The company has already repaid $6.7 billion of bailout money, but new CEO Daniel Akerson said the bailout repayments are likely to continue after the IPO.

The Obama administration recently trumpeted the decision to help GM, with the president traveling to a Hamtramck, Mich., factory in July to declare, “GM is on the move.”

The president criticized skeptics of the bailout aid and bankruptcy process, many of whom were Republicans. “And now here we are a year later,” Obama said. “And a year later, GM and Chrysler, along with Ford, are all posting a profit.”

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