K Street Insider: Giant correctional flush means new shoes for lobbyists

On Election Day millions of voters reached for the lever, and the resulting sound was a correctional flush of the way some prominent figures on K Street had been doing business. Voters robustly rejected the complicated system of “plumbing” that had evolved over the past decade to funnel perks, gain advantage, and distort the issues.

Travel, gifts, carefully priced sporting tickets and meals — voters were angered yet unsurprised when these perks became a focus of scrutiny. The “culture of corruption” mantra worked because these things all failed to pass a basic belief held by voters: Policy that’s in the public interest need not be dressed up with favors or perks. So they rejected the culture, and the new Democratic majority rightly reformed the system.

Now, I’m no Pollyanna, and much has been written already about the impact the sweeping gift and ethics reforms will have on lobbyists. To be sure, there is some appropriate grumbling about being unable to discuss an issue with a staffer over a sandwich. Lobbyists and staff correctly note that no lawmaker’s vote is going to be secured by a meal. Yet voters sought a sweep, and for a time, squeaky-clean business will be.

I say “for a time” because there surely will be those who find creative ways to circumvent the rules. There is truth to the saying that in politics, money is like water — it will find the crack and make its way through.

But there will also be those — and, in my opinion, the vast majority — who will take a different approach. They will roll up their sleeves, buy some comfortable shoes with healthy soles, and head up the Hill every day to advocate the interests of their clients.

They are the professionals who will succeed.

There is a fact about success in government and lobbying that is impossible to refute: Lawmakers and their staffs will listen and respond to people they know, like and trust. So the challenge now — for lobbyist and lawmaker alike — is to become known, liked and trusted.

For the lobbyist, that means an investment of time and energy to build relationships that were perhaps cemented more efficiently in the past with lunches, trips, and ballgames.

Indeed, if Jeff Birnbaum were writing his book The Lobbyists today, he might label the Rayburn and Longworth cafeterias the new “Gucci Gulch,” rather than the hallways outside the powerful Ways and Means Committee. Because these are the places successful lobbyists will turn to see familiar faces, discuss issues and position clients over coffee, paid “Dutch.”

But a responsibility also now lies with the lawmakers who correctly removed the distorting presence of perks. Even our Founding Fathers recognized the positive role competing factions would play in relation to congressional decision making. Lobbyists represent genuine interests with genuine needs and real issues at stake. We need your time and attention. We bring expertise and efficiency that is much needed in your harried schedules. We can connect you to decision makers in the business, diplomatic, and philanthropic worlds. In many instances, we even streamline and help prioritize the interaction with your state and local governments.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and the new Democratic majority took an important step toward minimizing the influence of money and perks by turning to a five-day-a-week schedule. Members and their staff will have more time to meet, discuss and learn while in Washington. That is, so long as K Street goes up the Hill and lawmakers give them access, without the perks.

Mr. Bonham is a principal in the Washington, D.C., government-relations practice at BrownRudnick. He is a former Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee executive director and was chief of staff to the late Rep. Robert T. Matsui (D-Calif.).