Lobbyists expect ‘surprisingly busy’ Congress despite campaign distractions

Lobbyists expect 2012 to be “surprisingly busy” compared to the normally lethargic pace of a presidential election year.

Congress will not move fully into campaign mode until the summer, lobbyists say, leaving more time for legislation to pass — and for businesses to hire advocates on K Street.

“The conventional pattern is that the fourth-year [of a four-year cycle] is typically the slowest [in] legislative activity,” said Nick Allard, a partner at the law and lobby firm Patton Boggs. “This year the conventional playbook gets tossed out.”

Allard emphasized that both parties have a common interest in passing legislation and proving to the public that they can address the nation’s problems.

“Congress is less popular than poison ivy right now,” Allard told the Hill. “It means they’re trying to get things done that they can run on in this [election].

More than a half dozen lobbyists contacted by The Hill generally agreed that 2012 will break the pattern of slow election years, but provided different explanations for why. Some cited the potential for a long battle for the Republican presidential nomination, while others noted the need for Congress to clear the legislative backlog that built up during the spending fights of 2011.

Holland and Knight partner Rich Gold said lawmakers would stay focused on legislation until the Republican nominee is set.

“The longer [the Republican nomination process] drags out, the longer it will take for the true Obama-versus-whoever battle to start, so I think there’s some time before outright warfare starts,” Gold told The Hill.

Gregg Hartley, the vice chairman and chief operating officer of Cassidy & Associates, said Congress can’t afford to rest on its laurels with so much change taking place around the globe.

"Globally and domestically, we’re either on the brink of a new democratic age or on the brink of one of the most dangerous times in our history."

“We have to be able to demonstrate that our form of government is solid, is working and ... that we can be responsive as governing units.”

A flurry of activity could also happen in the lame-duck session after the election, which will be the last chance for Congress to pass a debt-reduction plan, change the sequestered spending cuts and extend the George W. Bush-era tax rates.  Gold said that “holy trilogy” of issues could provide a jolt to the “anemic” Congress.

But even with those issues pending, 2012 will still be a “transition year,” Gold said.

“We’re not doing a lot of legislating and everything we pass is painful. I suspect that that will start to change this year, but I think we’ll see the full fruits of our labor in 2013.”

The full-year extension of the payroll tax cut, unemployment benefits and the Medicare “doc fix” will also need to be resolved quickly. H. Stewart Van Scoyoc, president and chief executive officer of Van Scoyoc Associates, said the need to pass a yearlong package by February would have Capitol Hill humming early in the year.

Members are also facing pressure to deal with a number of issues, like the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) reauthorization bill, that have been languishing for some time.

“There are a number of areas that decisions have been delayed. There’s [going to be] real pressure from businesses and organizations to deal with that,” Hartley said.

Van Scoyoc said discussions on tax reform — a crucial issue for businesses — would begin in earnest this year. The real push on reform won’t come until 2013, he said, but lobbyists need to start working the issue now.

“It’s like the super committee. If you wait until they draft the bill, the people that you need to talk to won’t be available,” Van Scoyoc said.

K Street is also expecting a revenue rebound in 2012. Most of the leading shops in Washington have seen their lobbying revenues decline this year, at least when compared with the heady days at the start of the Obama administration, when heavily lobbied issues like the stimulus, healthcare and Wall Street reform were moving in Congress.

Bill Wichterman, a senior legislative advisor at Covington & Burling, said there’s nowhere to go but up.

"I'd expect the first half of 2012 to be considerably busier than the last half of 2011." Wichterman said.