Lobbyist group tackles questions of a rapidly growing industry

The concerns of lobbyists are nothing if not particular. What is the proper use of corporate jets? What’s the best way to grow a PAC?

For the past 40 years, an elite group of Washington insiders has met periodically to mull questions just like those.

Founded in 1966 with fewer than 50 members, the Business-Government Relations Council (BGRC) now includes 100 representatives from large companies like General Electric, Dow Chemical and AT&T.

Shortly after Becky Sczudlo was chosen to head lobbying efforts at NiSource, a natural-gas pipeline company, an acquaintance told her: “You need to join BGRC.”

Sczudlo, who came to NiSource from Burson-Marsteller’s lobbying arm, said she now relies on it to help her do her job.

“There is a wealth of experience in the group,” Sczudlo said.

Sczudlo coordinates the BGRC best-practices group, choosing lecture topics she thinks may be of use to members.

Its list of alums may not be as elite as, say, Skull and Bones, the secret society at Yale University that allegedly counts Sen. John Kerry and President Bush as former members. But not everyone can join the BGRC. Most members are vice presidents at their companies. Outside lobbyists who work for K Street firms are generally not allowed in.

Two members must sponsor new entrants. Initiation fees and annual dues are relatively modest; each set at $1,800.

For that, members have the chance to attend around 15 meetings a year, including this year a 40th anniversary celebration set at the Willard Hotel on July 18.

Past presidents of the group include Ken Cole, who directs the lobbying office at General Motors, and John Castellani, who now directs the Business Roundtable. Because he works for a trade group, Castellani has emeritus membership status.

Sometimes a guest speaker is invited to address a members luncheon. House Natural Resources Committee Chairman Richard Pombo (R-Calif.) was one recent guest.

Other times the best-practices group puts on a presentation over lunch hosted by a BGRC member.

Topics have included how to manage outside consultants, effective grassroots, ethics and gift rules, Federal Election Commission compliance and managing trade associations. During the last meeting, a chief financial officer from one company explained the relationship between corporations and Wall Street. (The editor of this newspaper will give a presentation to the group about political blogs later this month.)

“I always walk out learning something new,” Sczudlo said.

As manager of the Washington office at BP, Peggy Hudson says she has a lot on her plate. Daily responsibilities include coordinating an office of 16 employees, including BP’s team of in-house lobbyists, and tracking the dozens of bills lawmakers have introduced that would affect her company after gasoline prices rose.

In addition to her own office, Hudson directs the lobbying efforts of the company’s outside K Street firms, of which BP had seven on retainer last year.

“The day-to-day operation of running a big staff in a corporate office, trying to make all trains run on time … it’s hard. You need friends to be up there [to ask], ‘Am I doing the right thing?’” said Hudson, a former BGRC president who calls the group a “tremendous networking opportunity.”

Several members seconded the notion that it helps to have a friendly ear or two to share concerns and get advice.

“We have a tendency to be myopic in this business,” said Tony Kavanagh, who directs the Washington office of American Electric Power and is the vice president of the BGRC. Kavanagh said he has been introduced to a number of executives who, while at different types of companies, may be able to offer advice on how to address a particular political problem.

Given the attention to lobbying scandals and the subsequent fallout on Capitol Hill, one recent focus of discussion has fallen on ethics and disclosure rules. The group has brought attorneys in to explain what’s allowed.

But topics can also be more mundane. Sczudlo said that one concern she had was where to put corporate representatives in town to do grassroots lobbying or attend a convention, or the activities they could do during downtime.

As lobbying has grown in importance, so too have the responsibilities of the corporate offices, said William King, a retired regulatory manager at Ford Motor Co. who has been involved with the BGRC since late 1971. He remains the group’s counsel.

“Washington offices have been evolving over the years,” he said.

There is more on a corporate lobbyist’s plate than there used to be. He or she must also manage not only federal affairs but also coordinate lobbying at the international and state levels.

But while lobbying has grown seemingly exponentially since the BGRC was founded, corporate lobbying execs can still feel unappreciated. Headquarters don’t always “understand how Washington works,” King said.

Another intention of BGRC meetings is to help Washington offices demonstrate their usefulness. For instance, after Sept. 11 BGRC members sought out information about security from government sources.

The group has also worked with the University of Maryland to develop a class in business schools that would teach students to appreciate how the federal government can affect a business.

Sczudlo is preparing a presentation to provide BGRC members some advice to their corporate bosses on how to deal with bird flu.

“What happens if you have a whole bunch of people sick?” Sczudlo asked, posing yet another question the modern lobbyist may be called upon to address.