K Street embraces ‘go small’ approach

Lobbyists are urging clients to temper their expectations for what can be achieved in the 113th Congress once the fight over government funding and the debt ceiling is over.

Scott Talbott, the senior vice president for public policy at the Financial Services Roundtable (FSR), is among a growing number of advocates who are trying to recalibrate strategy.

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“While the debt ceiling debate is going on, [we’re] trying to take advantage of the lull to lobby on smaller issues,” Talbott said, adding that the prognosis for getting much done is bleak.

Many lobbyists also agree that playing the long game has never been more essential.

“Patience may not be the sexiest strategy in the world, but when the time is right, like whenever bodies flip [in party control] ... it may change the game from the last couple of years,” said one Republican lobbyist and former leadership staffer.

But while passing major legislation has become difficult, low-profile bills with bipartisan backing still have a shot at reaching President Obama’s desk.

For instance, lobbying records and recent client registrations show a flurry of activity around the Drug Quality and Security Act — legislation that would tighten federal rules for compound pharmacies and work to establish a tracking system to stop counterfeit drugs.

“Track and trace is a model for the kind of legislation that has a shot in this Congress — it has bipartisan support on an issue that’s very difficult to oppose, which, in this case, is drug safety,” said Hunter Bates, a former chief of staff to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) who is co-founder of Republic Consulting. 

Amid the government shutdown fight, the “track and trace” bill passed the House by voice vote on Sept. 28. In the Senate, leaders from both parties are working with the Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) Committee to move it forward.

Bates’s firm represents UPS and the Biotechnology Industry Organization, which are members of a coalition that supports the pharmacy legislation.

K Street is also keeping busy with “niche” issues like trade agreements, appropriations bills and the toxic chemicals regulations bill left unfinished by the late Sen. Frank Lautenberg (D-N.J.).

But that doesn’t mean that work on big-ticket items like immigration or tax reform has come to a halt.

“You have to do your work on the assumption that something will break. You can’t just assume nothing’s going to happen,” said Stewart Verdery, the founder and partner of the lobby firm Monument Policy Group.

“The rule of thumb is, if it’s a small issue, try and keep it under the radar. ... You don’t want to create controversy where there is none. You’re trying to develop supporters without creating any detractors.”

While enacting legislation can often take more than one session of Congress, several lobbyists emphasized the importance of establishing benchmarks.

“Timeframes could be delayed, but if a client needs Congress to pass legislation, they need Congress to pass legislation,” Jeff Peck, a partner at Peck Madigan Jones, in an email interview. “Simply because it might be harder doesn’t mean you settle for something well short of the objective.”

Peck said the objective is not always carrying a bill across the finish line — goals could include passing legislation in one chamber as a means to pressure a regulator to act, for example. 

“But if you need Congress and the administration to adopt a new policy or block a proposed new policy, you have to fight for the long-term objective,” he said.

Although advocates expect few large policy accomplishments before the midterm elections, they are keeping a busy schedule on Capitol Hill.

“Education” is the buzzword that lobbyists are using to describe meetings with congressional offices that aren’t organized with a specific outcome in mind. Those pressure-free meetings can lay the foundation for future victories, lobbyists say.

“Don’t come to the party late,” said Alex McGee, a managing director in the public policy and regulatory affairs practice at McKenna Long & Aldridge and former Energy Department liaison to Congress. “When something big happens, you want to have already been there — and you want to have been there early and often.”

In the meantime, advocates are biding their time as they wait for Congress to resolve the latest fiscal crisis.

Josh Tzuker, counsel at Crowell & Moring and former aide to Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.), said lawmakers are eager to move on.

“Solving the debt crisis comes down to four or five people in a room making a deal,” he said. “You have 531 other members who want to do [other things].”