Bridging the divide between Capitol Hill and K Street

Sitting in meetings in the Capitol with representatives of industry, I can’t tell you how often I have heard this phrase: “Congress would never pass that bill. That’s absolutely insane. Don’t they know what this legislation would do to our industry and the jobs we create?” It captures the confusion between the political needs of Washington and the corporate strategies of K Street. The confusion is becoming more intense by the week and could skyrocket depending on who will be our next president.

The communications divide between the world of politics and the world of corporate America is significant. But there is a demand for threading the communications needle between the short-term dealings of Washington and the long-range strategies of corporate America.

Republican and Democratic leaders start a new Congress with grand legislative and communications agendas developed from their winter retreats and in coordination with the White House. These plans often drastically change according to the evolving political landscape. The result is that well-thought-out blueprints break down into smaller-scale agendas and become just weekly legislative cycles; there is no common theme that weaves these cycles together.

The political reality of “living in the moment” rules Washington, especially now that we are in a presidential election year. Only on a few occasions, such as funding the troops, are we witnessing an issue that is lasting a full two-year cycle with solid communications branding around it. After this election, if all the initiatives and themes are reviewed, there will most likely be a high level of inconsistency.

In Congress and the administration, members and staff expect the business community to understand the political realities they face and to help them win reelection, they’ll seek out assistance from K Street to help them generate momentum in the private sector to help pass issues like trade and tax relief.

From the perspective of the business community, it seems obvious that what should dominate the House or Senate floor time should be based on the long-term needs of the economy that will benefit the country. And, of course, Congress should also act accordingly when there are emergencies. But it never seems to work out that way. Just look at America’s energy crisis. Instead of establishing long-term solutions based on sound policy that will bring prices down, Congress is responding to rising gasoline prices with feel-good answers such as a windfall profits tax. The methodology of Congress confuses downtown, especially those who have never worked on Capitol Hill.

The masters of corporate America look strongly at trends and the impact public policy will have on their industry. But business leaders don’t just plan on the first or second quarter, they build their marketing campaigns and strategies on longer-term cycles, often on one-, two- or multiyear models. They keep their communications branding as simple as possible in order to build strong trust with the public that will lead to increased performance of their bottom line.

Right now, Congress is battling it out every week with political votes, partisan floor speeches and dueling press conferences. At the same time, business-savvy K Street strategists are already planning on contingencies based on worst-case scenarios. If Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) becomes president, there will be a few significant differences in public policy. If there is a Democratic president, then corporate America might have a lot to worry about when it comes to higher taxation, litigation and regulation. The more strategic ones are beginning to plan communication, grassroots and lobbying campaigns for their industry.

While there are basic and fundamental differences between politics and business, there are opportunities to work together. At the moment, neither political party has truly harnessed the power of the business community. The last time we saw the true power of successful coordination was when Congress passed the tax cuts of 2001 and 2003.

Ron Bonjean is CEO of The Bonjean Company , a full-service public affairs firm. He was chief of staff for Senate Republican Whip Jon Kyl (Ariz.) and communications director for then-House Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), -Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.), -U.S. Commerce Secretary Don Evans and other House members. Contact him at ron@bonjeancompany.com.

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