Venn Strategies' new lobbying duo speaks language of the Hill

Just because Lori Neal and Jessica Battaglia have made that storied trek from the Hill to downtown does not mean they have forgotten their roots.

The two new Democratic arrivals at female-dominated Venn Strategies pride themselves on speaking the language of the aides they once were. Tall, blue-eyed Neal is a Senate veteran, and petite, brown-eyed Battaglia cut her teeth in the House, but both lobbyists know to never compile a dense document without an executive summary, never talk at length when a succinct explanation will do.

“It’s important to bring your experience as a former staffer to the table, when lobbying staff and members,” said Battaglia, who spent four years with Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), most recently as tax and trade counsel. “[Members] are inundated with requests and must deal with myriad issues, so I try to always be concise, convincing, substantive and sensitive to their busy schedules.”

Neal spent the past four years as a senior healthcare aide to Sen. Blanche Lincoln (D-Ark.). She called her work for health purchasing conglomerate Amerinet and the University of Wisconsin Medical Foundation “much more similar than I thought it would be” to her work in the Senate.

Indeed, Venn has built a reputation as slightly more warm and fuzzy than its fellow K Street power players, not merely because of its female founders — the firm’s first Y chromosome, former White House economic aide Brian Reardon, came on board four years after Venn opened its doors. Venn’s clients enjoy the benefit of a group approach as opposed to more parochial services based on which lobbyist brings in the business.

The Venn logo, based on the overlapping-circles diagram still a staple in high school math classes, offers three principles to match its image: Government Relations, Public Affairs and Business Solutions.

“We are eyes-and-ears and arms-and-legs” for clients, Neal said. “There’s no set framework for any one client.”

Since Venn was founded by two longtime lobbyist-lawyers in 2001, a steady stream of congressional recruits has buttressed the shop’s business expertise with inside-baseball knowledge like Neal and Battaglia’s.

Yet neither woman identified their move to the private sector with the Beltway media’s recent drumbeat about lobbying firms snapping up Democrats in anticipation of the party taking over one or both houses of Congress. Neal and Battaglia saw themselves as part of a bipartisan expansion, not a partisan shift.

“There’s more of a perception on K Street that the old way of stacking the deck doesn’t work,” Battaglia said. “We need a more balanced approach. Even if [Democrats] don’t take it back this time, the margins are going to be narrower.”

Venn, she noted, is now almost evenly split between Republicans and Democrats. Both women cited the firm’s Democratic guru, Anne Urban, a former aide to Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.) and ex-Sen. Bob Kerrey (D-Neb.), as a motivating factor for their move off the Hill.

Battaglia’s client roster includes BellSouth, the Philanthropy Roundtable’s Alliance for Charitable Reform (ACR) effort and Thrivent Financial for Lutherans, a retirement planning and insurance company. The ACR, which lists Venn as its headquarters and GOP firm principal Sandra Swirski as its director, fought against a plan by Senate Finance Committee Chairman Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa) to increase the excise tax on private foundations’ investment income.

The ACR scored an initial victory in May when Grassley’s charitable-incentives package was shed from the $70 billion tax-cutting reconciliation bill, but Grassley secured a compromise with Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.) that ensured most of the tax changes the ACR criticized ended up in August’s pension overhaul.

Battaglia said she prefers the constant pace of lobbying work to the sometimes frenetic, go-go rhythm of Capitol life.

As a staffer, “You are bombarded with information,” she said. “Here you don’t have that – you have to dig for information. It’s a learning process.”

After earning a law degree at the College of William and Mary in Virginia, Battaglia went on to serve as a legislative director and assistant to three former Old Dominion lawmakers, including Sen. Chuck Robb (D-Va.).

In addition to the ACR, Venn represents the Dallas-based Charitable Accord, a coalition of nonprofit groups that won their lobbying fight for tax-free contributions to charity from individual retirement accounts (IRAs).

Neal is keeping close watch on her former haunt as Grassley begins an inquiry into the nonprofit hospital sector’s use of tax exemptions and reporting of community benefits. She is also tracking the progress of health information-technology legislation, though the gap between the House and Senate’s approach to the issue could put off significant action until next year.

Democrats have sought to leverage reported enrollment glitches and coverage gaps in the Medicare prescription drug benefit into a winning political issue, but Neal downplayed the impact of campaign-trail rhetoric on policy decisions. “We all want Medicare to be a success,” she said. “That was [Lincoln’s] approach.”

Lincoln Chief of Staff Elizabeth Burks recalled Neal, who specialized in Social Security and Medicaid issues for the rural-state senator, as a tireless worker. “What I remember most about her was her constant desire to improve and perfect her work,” Burks said by way of e-mail.

Lincoln is considered more of a centrist than Lewis, Battaglia’s former boss, but both new Venn lobbyists take a gentler approach to the high-stakes partisanship of this election season.

“We have to meet somewhere in the middle,” Neal said. “That’s where the country is. “Victories come when you compromise” — an adage for lobbying and legislating alike.