By Kevin Bogardus - 06/18/13 09:00 AM EDT
K Street has gone coalition crazy.
Corporate America can’t seem to get enough of the ad hoc coalitions that are formed to put muscle and money behind a lobbying push, and hardly a week passes in Washington without a new group appearing on the scene.
“Coalitions allow you to focus like a laser beam on a specific issue,” said Peter Cleveland, the vice president of global public policy at Intel.
The coalition kick has been on full display in the drive for tax reform.
Intel has recently punched its membership card for three coalitions — the Alliance for Competitive Taxation, the LIFT America Coalition and the RATE Coalition — that are working some angle in the reform debate.
More than a dozen other companies — including FedEx, Nike and Verizon — are members of at least two of the tax reform groups.
Cleveland noted that Intel is also involved with several single-issue groups, including the High Tech Spectrum Coalition and the R&D Credit Coalition. The advantage of the arrangement, he said, is replacing the “tens of thousands of lobbyists” working on an issue with a single point of contact.
“Coalitions are nimble, effective, [and] bring together expertise that is useful,” he said.
Intel is also a member of Compete America, which has been at the tip of the spear in the tech industry’s push for more high-skilled worker visas in the Senate immigration bill.
The coalition has become a go-to source of information for congressional staff.
Last week, Compete helped host a Capitol Hill briefing for House aides on immigration reform. Some staffers were forced to sit on the floor as lobbyists from Intel, Microsoft, Qualcomm and Texas Instruments answered questions in a jampacked hearing room.
“They want our input and they want us actively in support of the bill because they think it is critical to passing the legislation,” said Scott Corley, Compete’s executive director.
Corley noted these companies, in their day-to-day operations, are “competitors. They naturally don’t come together. An issue has to bring them together, and that is what immigration did.”
Another advantage to coalitions is the price tag.
Lobbyists and consultants estimate some coalitions charge companies membership fees from $25,000 into the low six figures per year to fund lobbying, advertising and media work — a drop in the bucket compared to the millions of dollars major corporations spend on lobbying each year.
“Government relations lobbying budgets are not growing, so you need to accommodate the creation of new organizations like that within budgets that can sometimes be restraining,” Cleveland said.
Consultants said the coalitions often take the form of a nonprofit, either as a 501(c)(3) or a 501(c)(4) organization, or both. Finishing the legal paperwork and creating a website can take “months” before a coalition’s launch date, according to Doug Goodyear, CEO of DCI Group.
“You want do your homework. When you launch, you want to have your act together,” Goodyear said, whose firm now works for the Campaign to Fix the Debt. “Generally, you try to make their website a clearinghouse of information so any staffer and lawmaker or the media can access it with just a few clicks and get all the information they need.”
Coalitions often disappear from the scene quickly when a lobbying battle has run its course.
“You stand up a coalition when the issue is relevant and moving through Congress and the White House. When it’s done, it’s done,” said Gloria Story Dittus, chairman of Story Partners.
But sometimes the end of one lobbying coalition signals the arrival of another.
The WIN America Campaign — which pushed for allowing companies to bring back their overseas profits temporarily under lower taxes — terminated their lobbying contracts early last year.
SKDKnickerbocker, which represented WIN America, is now representing the Alliance for Competitive Taxation, or ACT.
Increasingly, there seems to be a coalition for every issue.
Last week, Avenue Solutions registered to lobby for the Coalition to Strengthen the Future of Molecular Diagnostics on “reimbursement rates for molecular diagnostic testing.”
On Monday, the Coalition for Derivatives End-Users sponsored ads in Beltway publications thanking the House for passing legislation that limited the reach of the Dodd-Frank law.
And on Tuesday, the Alliance for Fair Trade with India will launch, taking aim at India’s trade practices.
Expertise in forming coalitions has become a profitable niche in the influence industry, and lobby firms are expanding their services to meet the demand.
McBee Strategic Consulting brought on board the public relations firm Gibraltar Associates as its strategic communications unit, and it has helped with the firm’s stable of coalitions.
“We want to be an one-stop shop with messaging, boots on the ground lobbying and overall management,” said Rob Chamberlin, senior lobbyist for McBee. “For us, we are seeing more and more the advent of coalition work.”
The popularity of coalitions reflects a broader shift on K Street from closed-door deal making to national advocacy campaigns.
Story Partners — which represents the Coalition for Patent Fairness and LIFT America —says it can drum up alliances quickly and then blitz lawmakers across the country with carefully tailored media messages.
“A lawmaker can be reached through a constituent letter, a phone call, a town hall meeting. Any avenue you have can be utilized by a coalition,” said Amos Snead, a principal at the firm. “You are going to have your members talk differently to a Republican lawmaker from Alabama than a Democratic lawmaker from California. You may say different things, but you all are supporting the same goal.”
Consultants say energizing constituents in support of your coalition’s cause is where the influence industry is headed.
“Look at what the Obama campaign did. They did a really amazing job of citizen engagement. That’s what these coalitions want to do,” said Goodyear with DCI Group.
Jennifer Martinez contributed to this report.