By Kevin Bogardus - 12/15/10 12:55 AM EST
Lobbyists in the nation’s capital say they have seen something unexpected from the Obama administration in recent weeks: a change in its attitude toward K Street.
The White House’s outreach to business in the wake of the midterm elections has led to a softening of relations, these lobbyists contend.
President Obama has often criticized lobbyists. He has repeatedly complained they have undue influence on the political process, and his administration has placed restrictions on the profession, limiting advocacy for stimulus funds and banning lobbyists from federal advisory boards. Obama refused to accept donations from lobbyists in his 2008 presidential bid.
That harsh rhetoric has led to a White House that has not communicated well or at all with K Street, according to lobbyists. But since Democrats suffered heavy losses in November, lobbyists have seen administration officials more willing to work with business leaders, who are their clients.
For example, Donna Harman, president and CEO of the American Forest & Paper Association, was surprised to receive a phone call from Bob Perciasepe, deputy administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), last week.
She said the EPA official thanked her for the way her trade group handled itself during a contentious rulemaking process that would have imposed tough new pollution controls on industrial boilers — a huge concern for her member companies in the paper and wood manufacturing business.
Last week, EPA decided to ask for more than a year’s worth of time to re-propose the regulation.
“The outreach is usually going one way, and that’s from me,” Harman, a registered lobbyist, said. “Most of the time it is me calling them, not the other way around.”
Brendan Gilfillan, an EPA spokesman, termed the call to Harman “routine.”
“As we do with every rule we propose to protect Americans’ health, EPA officials consulted with a wide range of groups, from industry to environmentalists, to ensure we had the best information possible,” Gilfillan said.
Harman said the election results have led to a noticeable change by the administration, which is now “listening” to business and, consequently, lobbyists.
“Decisions by companies to hold back on their investments, that was powerful. I think the administration saw that, listened and reconsidered,” Harman said. “The message got through. Whenever your message gets through as a lobbyist, you feel good about it. Sometimes you feel like you are banging your head against a brick wall.”
Along with new outreach by the White House, a business group considered close to the administration has reached out more to lobbyists.
Run by individuals tied to the White House or the 2008 Obama campaign, member-company executives of Business Forward often speak out in favor of policies taken by the administration.
Several lobbyists said K Street Democrats have been involved in the group behind the scenes despite the administration’s public contempt toward their industry.
But since the election, lobbyists are playing a more active role in Business Forward’s main function: briefings with senior Obama administration officials.
For example, on Nov. 15, Jim Messina, deputy White House chief of staff, attended a Business Forward meeting with business executives and several prominent Democratic lobbyists — including Broderick Johnson of Bryan Cave, Manuel Ortiz of Quinn Gillespie & Associates and Jeff Peck of Peck, Madigan, Jones & Stewart Inc.
“Business Forward has discovered lobbyists, more than they have in the past,” a Democratic lobbyist said. “That is a different posture.”
Jim Doyle, Business Forward’s executive director, said lobbyists have come to briefings with administration officials because the group is reaching out to more people, leading to a greater presence from K Street.
“What you are seeing is not a change in policy but the fact that the meetings are just getting bigger,” Doyle said. “Our goal is to increase our scale, to do more events and to do more cities.”
The group has grown to 17 member companies — including AT&T, Facebook and Lockheed Martin — from an original half-dozen, and has plans to increase its membership to 20 by next month.
Doyle said the goal for his group is to have a Washington briefing every two weeks with an Obama administration official. He praised the administration’s outreach to the business world.
“They are effective, they are committed to it and they take input and they follow up,” Doyle said. “They are trying to work with business leaders who haven’t participated in the policymaking process before, and that takes a lot of effort.”
There have been substantial policy shifts coming from the White House, which have attracted praise from business groups as well as lobbyists.
In recent weeks, the administration has finalized a long-sought trade deal with South Korea and is pushing lawmakers to get behind extending tax cuts for the wealthy, which should help boost investment, some lobbyists argue.
The president can point to those successes at a Wednesday meeting he is having with roughly 20 high-profile CEOs. K Street is also keeping an eye on the gathering, some of whose participants helped with the logistics in coordination with the White House.
“They are talking to lobbyists about who is available and how to set up this meeting,” said one Democratic lobbyist.
Amy Brundage, a White House spokeswoman, said the White House decided on what companies would be represented at the meeting, not lobbyists.
“The decision regarding which companies would be represented at the working meeting happening tomorrow at the White House was made by the White House. The CEOs from each company were invited by [White House senior adviser] Valerie Jarrett personally. The White House worked through each company’s D.C. office to coordinate on the logistics of [Wednesday’s] event,” Brundage said.
Obama’s meeting with CEOs will not be the only attention-grabbing effort geared toward business.
The president might speak before the U.S. Chamber of Commerce early next year. That business group has spent tens of millions of dollars on lobbying and television ads blasting Democratic lawmakers for their support of administration policies, such as voting for the healthcare reform bill.
Yet the Chamber supports the pending Korea trade deal that Obama has made a top priority in the next Congress. And some political observers predict that the Chamber and the White House will partner on a range of issues in 2011, while clashing on others.