K Street suffers from identity crisis

Greg Nash

The stigma associated with being a registered lobbyist has created an identity crisis for K Street.

The American League of Lobbyists is considering removing “lobbyist” from its name as its members increasingly brand themselves as consultants and public relations experts.

The move, which was first reported by The Hill, is part of a broader debate among industry players about whether they should embrace or run away from their namesake. 

“The dirty little secret is, lawyers and lawyers who are lobbyists’ primary job is not to be popular,” said Nick Allard, a partner at Patton Boggs and the dean of Brooklyn Law School.

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“Your job is to be an effective advocate for your client, whether or not they’re popular. Your job is to follow the rules and make an effective case,” Allard said.

But some on K Street say they understand the internal struggle associated with the industry's desire to cast itself in a different light while still staying true to its roots.

“It sucks to have your grandmother look down on what you do,” said a lobbyist for a Fortune 500 company who requested anonymity to speak freely. He added that those who are passionate about the causes they represent shouldn’t care either way.

The American League of Lobbyists (ALL) acknowledges that the lobbying industry's reputation has suffered, but insists the impending name change is unrelated.

K Street is evolving, said ALL President Monte Ward, and “our name hasn’t kept up.”

Ward said he hopes to group other political activists into the renamed organization, including those who run political action committees and grassroots advocacy campaigns.

There has undoubtedly been a broad shift away from the “lobbyist” label in recent years, with many going out of their way to avoid registering.

The number of active registered lobbyists in Washington is at a 14-year low, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. While the group counts 10,290 registered lobbyists for 2013, there were 14,842 in 2007.

As the trade group for lobbyists, ALL is responding to the trend.

While the group was explicitly founded to enhance “the standing and reputation” of lobbying professionals in the 1980s, barely half of the group’s members are now registered to lobby, according to Ward.

K Street insiders say there are a number of reasons for the change.

For one, President Obama has enacted a series of ethics orders designed to keep lobbyists out of government, giving lobbyists an incentive to keep their names off the registration rolls.

“When the administration tells you that you’re unwelcome and the public perception of the industry is so negative, lobbyists become very aware of the message that’s being sent,” said Joshua Rosenstein, an attorney at Sandler Reiff Young & Lamb who represents individuals and companies engaged in advocacy.

Those reforms compounded the damage done by the Jack Abramoff scandal, which sullied the industry’s reputation and spurred Congress to pass sweeping ethics reforms that set strict limits on what registered lobbyists can do.

There’s also a generational divide emerging, with younger staffers seeking to avoid the “Scarlet L” of registering to lobby.

One prominent former aide told The Hill he was “gun shy” about going to a lobbying firm.

That former aide, who also has a law degree, settled on a job with a law and lobby firm “to diversify my options in a market where demand for lobbying services might be going down. He also mentioned the negative stigma that can be attached to the job title.

That negative stigma has even occasionally extended to the people who hire lobbyists, several in the industry told The Hill.

Many experienced hands said there have been times when clients have being wary of taking them into official meetings with lawmakers and federal officials that they had helped to arrange.

Bob Walker, the executive chairman of Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates, says the rhetoric about K Street has created a “perverse bogeyman” that has harmed the policy process. 

“The reality is, lobbyists spend as much time educating their clients about Washington as they do representing those clients,” he said.

Allard, who has penned several op-eds and academic papers encouraging more transparency in the lobbying industry, says those who work in advocacy should be passionate about the causes they represent and take pride in their work.

“What any lobbyist can do, another lobbyist can undo,” he added. “You better have a good case to sustain your result.” 

And even though ALL might take “lobbyist” out of its name, Ward says the group will definitely be keeping it in its tagline — at the insistence of the group’s members. 

“They don’t run away from the term ‘lobbyist,’ ” Ward said. “Our association will always represent the lobbyists and try to promote the profession — no matter what the name is.”

— This story was updated at 9:47 a.m.