Stick with old ways, say goodbye to K Street

Regardless of who enters the White House next year, one point is clear: Change really is coming. And for K Street, there is no way to sugarcoat it. For some lobbyists, this change will be quite dramatic, possibly even the end of the road.

The dialogue from the presidential and even the congressional campaigns all but guarantees a new and special focus on lobbying and what it means for governing. Whether the next administration is Democratic or Republican, there will be a closer look at campaign dollars and what those dollars represent. Money that is donated from political action committees (PACs) will be scrutinized more heavily than ever, and public perception and awareness of the issue will be heightened.

The bottom line is that associations and interest groups that fail to push good, simple public policy will have a hard time doing business in this town. Questionable foreign nations and entities, so-called Main Street groups that really represent a select few and organizations that advocate generally tough-to-stomach positions (i.e., defenders of pollution) will be put under more direct public scrutiny.  

Put another way, those who seem to represent questionable interest groups and believe in the old “behind-closed-doors” approach will begin to lose favor and have greater difficulty gaining access to lawmakers.

Without that access, of course, it will be time to pack up and find another profession.  

We are already seeing a new focus and new rules on Capitol Hill, and the coming election will only tighten and solidify the rules. The Jack Abramoffs of the world cannot survive in the new environment, nor can those perceived to be playing along the dark gray edges.

Readers of this column are smart people who adapt well to change and who work to make sure their voices are heard loudly but fairly. But even those of us who can feel good about working in any environment need to think harder about doing business the right way.

Any association or interest group that cares about survival must — if nothing else — reevaluate how it is conducting business and consider whether its conduct will be acceptable in a new administration and Congress. Those who ignore the wave of change could soon feel the spotlight of the media and the sting of the public.

Our model at the Credit Union National Association (CUNA) is one way an association can remain in the game and well-respected in the public’s eye. Our political action committee (CULAC) is one of the largest in Washington, on track this cycle to reach $4 million in contributions. And yet the average donation is $10, which shows we are a grassroots group with a large constituency.

The point is that it is one thing to show one has significant funding resources, but it is another to demonstrate that there are real people behind those resources. The media and the general public, and, yes, the next administration, will have far less tolerance for big-money political organizations that represent the few. In addition, the donation process is increasingly becoming more democratized.  The Internet is making it easier for everyday citizens to make small contributions which, when added together, can have a meaningful impact.    

To those who say I am overreacting, just watch or read the news more carefully.  Candidates on both sides of the aisle are being hammered about their ties to “Washington lobbyists.” That intense scrutiny is not going away. Even if the media stopped following the issue, there are too many concerned citizens who are a click away from following the money. If a traditional news outlet misses the mark, there are bloggers and citizen journalists tracking the dollars.

Having lived through many administrations and congressional sessions, I know certain things will never change.

There will always be special interests.  Some groups will count more than others; that’s just the way it is.  Earmarks or something like them will always exist, and those who get them will generally have the best lobbying effort.

Conversely, members of Congress will always have some way of taking care of district needs. For my part, I think this is healthy, and it shows our system works.

But remember this: The system will change. Many lobbyists will adapt with flying colors, and others will fade away. K Street, for some now, is the end of the road.    

Mica is the president & CEO of the Credit Union National Association (CUNA), which represents nearly 8,500 credit unions with 90 million members.  Rep. Mica (D-Fla.) served in the House from 1979-89.