By Elana Schor - 03/08/06 12:00 AM EST
Before their biweekly powwows were abruptly halted amid whispers of impropriety, Senate Democrats and their K Street allies had set only three rules: No outside guests. No fundraising. No lobbying.
Democratic leaders’ decision to cancel the lobbyist-senator sit-downs despite their formal emphasis on intelligence sharing – not horse-trading – revives a perennial concern among Democratic business lobbyists. While Republicans have largely preserved their business ties since Jack Abramoff’s indictment rocked the Hill in January, Democrats representing some of the nation’s most profitable corporations can find themselves bending over backwards to gain the trust of suspicious Democratic staffers and members.
Many K Street Democrats had believed the chill was thawing between the party and its corporate lobbyists, who tend to be political centrists. But the cancellation of the Senate meetings, often nicknamed the “Monday Group,” coupled with Democrats’ continued willingness to meet with ideological lobbyists from groups such as NARAL Pro-Choice America and the Alliance for Justice, are inflaming old wounds.
“It’s a double standard,” said one frustrated business Democrat. “Why is it that they are permitted not only unfettered access, but a seat at the table in the Capitol to discuss their legislative agenda – but we can’t do ours?”
The lobbyists interviewed for this article began discussing the Monday Group before its cancellation, beginning in late 2005, and later expressed their reaction to its termination.
Just one year ago, new Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid (D-Nev.) was winning praise from lobbyists in both parties for reaching out to business heavyweights. Subtly but unmistakably, Reid put industries from insurance to banking on notice that he would be more flexible than his predecessor, former Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), whom Republicans successfully branded an obstructionist.
Reid’s shift in tone hastened passage early last year of a bill limiting class-action lawsuits, backed by 18 Senate and 50 House Democrats. Bankruptcy overhaul, a long-sought goal of Republicans and business interests, snared 18 Senate and 73 House Democratic votes; Reid and House Minority Whip Steny Hoyer (D-Md.), coordinator of his chamber’s lobbyist outreach effort, were among the bankruptcy bill’s supporters.
Democratic business lobbyists, after taking a backseat during Daschle’s reign, were thrilled.
“Reid has been really good in allowing bills that business really wanted,” said Bill Andresen, a senior vice president at Dutko Worldwide and former head of federal affairs at the centrist Democratic Leadership Council.
“Republicans were orchestrating the floor to keep these bills from coming up so they could use them against Democrats. … You got a couple of bills business wanted that a number of Democrats supported. It was a win-win situation.”
Andresen and his cohorts understand that Democratic lobbyists may never catch up to Republicans in their ability to earn trust and access at the Capitol. Even before Reid, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and other party leaders moved to build their election-year platform around cleaning up lobbyist corruption, business Democrats had seen their share of closed doors and unreturned calls.
What most puzzles K Street Democrats is not Reid’s decision to call off the Monday Group meetings, which was deemed understandable if unfair. Instead, Democratic lobbyists wondered why Republicans are given leeway to serve two masters – corporate clients and the GOP majority – while their loyalty goes ignored.
Rich Tarplin, who managed Hill relations for the Clinton administration’s Department of Health and Human Services before becoming chairman of Timmons & Company, explained that most companies avoid asking their Democratic lobbyists to become partisan turncoats.
“By and large, clients don’t want you to burn your own contacts, so it’s infrequent when you’re asked to work directly against people in your own party,” Tarplin said.
Jim Manley, Reid’s spokesman, noted that theMonday Group meetings were conceived before Reid’s ascension to the leader’s post by the offices of Sens. Herb Kohl (D-Wis.) and Thomas Carper (D-Del.). Manley said the cancellation of the meetings was not intended to sever the lobbying-free rapport that had developed.
“We’re continuing to look for ways to keep the dialogue going between the Hill and the folks downtown,” Manley said. As for the continuing meetings between Senate Democratic leaders and interest-group and advocacy lobbyists, they “have been going on for many years with no requirement that [the groups involved] be either Democrats or Republicans,” Manley said.
In fact, the fundraising success of congressional Democrats’ campaign committees and the resulting buzz that the minority could be in for significant electoral gains this fall is a boon to the Democratic lobbying community. Trade associations and outside shops are suddenly hunting for Democrats to help balance their lobbying staffs.
K Street Democrats, whether they coordinate fundraisers or merely send in checks, argue that their party affiliation still runs as deeply as their Republican colleagues. Jeff Peck, a partner at Johnson, Madigan, Peck, Boland & Stewart, said business lobbyists are giving freely to Democratic candidates who rarely vote their way on key issues, citing the Senate hopeful Rep. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.).
“One thing that’s good for everyone’s business is more Democrats in the House and more Democrats in the Senate and a Democrat in the White House,” said Peck, a former Senate Judiciary Committee staff director. “There’s nothing like being out of power to help concentrate your mind on what you need to do to help get back in power.”
Openly cheerleading for a return to Democratic control, however, has not helped business lobbyists win chits with Democratic members. One veteran lobbyist recalled asking to meet with a Democratic staffer on a minor issue and being told to e-mail a detailed summary of the meeting’s agenda and a list of guests before a decision could be made.
Another lobbyist sighed with relief when recalling his decision to join a corporation’s in-house team rather than opening his own firm, which he said would turn off Democratic aides. “They’d be suspicious – ‘who’s he representing?’” the lobbyist said.
Joel Johnson, a senior aide to President Clinton and partner at the Glover Park Group, described a Democratic dynamic miles away from quid pro quo.
“We want to do everything we can to help our side thrive, and there’s an understanding that folks on the Hill can only help us when they can,” Johnson said.
The Monday Group was conceived as an antidote to the persistent chariness between downtown and Hill Democrats. The meetings, held at Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee headquarters instead of the Capitol, featured frequent guest speakers on the congressional agenda and a collegial approach to strategy – the anti-K Street Project, in the words of many lobbyists and senior aides.
The simple presence of open dialogue went a long way toward soothing Democratic lobbyists who felt better treated by Republican offices. Finally, they felt more like members of the team.
“If you could lay out the team concept on a spectrum, from one end – which is, ‘you’ve gone to the dark side,’ to the other end – which is, ‘give me the bill language, I’m going to the floor to introduce it’ – we [were] moving up the spectrum,” said Chuck Brain of Capitol Hill Strategies, who lobbies for Wachovia, Amgen and Prudential.
But in a post-Abramoff world, that nuance could not stop the Monday Group from turning into a valuable weapon for Republicans seeking to brand Reid a hypocrite for his anti-corruption platform.
The National Republican Senatorial Committee crowed at press reports that revealed a lobbying jobs list circulating at the meetings, comparing it to the hiring pressure campaign orchestrated by former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) and other GOP leaders. Sen. Rick Santorum (R-Pa.), besieged by Democratic attacks on his close ties to the lobbying industry, directly challenged Reid’s involvement with the Monday Group, calling it a “Democratic K Street Project.”
The Monday Group’s demise fueled speculation among some former members who would have preferred mimicking the K Street Project from the start. These lobbyists blame congressional Democrats for failing to fight fire with fire by keeping the cash spigots open and the “ask” overt.
“If you want my opinion, we should have matched it,” said one of the same lobbyists who spoke candidly about resenting the Monday Group’s cancellation. “For the most part, Democrats on the Hill weren’t comfortable with doing that. They didn’t want to have a K Street Project and aren’t as comfortable with or as close to lobbyists.”
Another Democratic lobbyist said proudly that he would lose no sleep over the cancelled meetings, but that Reid’s and other offices might soon regret spurning K Street.
“It’s going to make communication back and forth more cumbersome,” said this lobbyist. “The leadership will lose the benefits of exchange, particularly in a group setting. The point of, and the benefit of, these meetings was not so much for the lobbyists.”
Jimmy Ryan, who left Reid’s office two years ago to lobby for Citigroup, described a nightmare scenario for Democrats wagering double-or-nothing on the “culture of corruption” message. If Democrats do take back one or more houses of Congress this fall, Ryan said, Republican lobbyists would retaliate the only way they know how.
“Republicans control the purse strings on all the PACs, from the corporate world to the trade association world. … There will be more arrows and bullets coming from that world at the Democratic majority,” Ryan predicted.
Referencing his boss at Citigroup, former Bush administration congressional liaison Nick Calio, Ryan said: “He’s the best Republican lobbyist in town, he treats me really well. But at the end of the day, I’ve got to ask him to give money to a Democrat.” Of the top 10 PACs contributing to Democratic candidates this cycle, only two represent business groups, according to data from the Center for Responsive Politics.
Tarplin was not surprised at the synergy of corporate lobbyists preferring to steer donations toward Republican offices, where their money is likely to talk more loudly.
“Republicans tend to look at Republican lobbyists as kindred spirits – there’s a unity of purpose, a monolithic structure and an acknowledged symbiosis,” Tarplin said.
Johnson also acknowledged the innate cultural difference between Republican and Democratic business lobbyists.
“It all derives from the ideological differences on the Hill. There’s a fundamental difference between Democrats’ view of the government’s role in our lives and society and the view on the Republican side. Most of who the lobbyists are reflects those views,” he said. “Other than that, they have more expensive suits.”
Michael Lewan, a Brown & Rudnick lobbyist and former chief of staff to Sen. Joseph Lieberman (D-Conn.), was once tasked with circulating the Monday Group’s Democratic jobs list. Now Lewan fondly recalls last year’s class action debate as a time of unprecedented compromise, when several Senate Democrats “worked closely with the [U.S.] Chamber [of Commerce], which had been considered a bedrock Republican establishment, to put together an acceptable piece of legislation.”
“There could be more examples of that,” Lewan added hopefully. Successful lobbying “doesn’t have to be based on political contributions. It could be based on better dialogue.”
Even so, Congress’ 2006 agenda is sure to bring a new handful of crucial votes, for which a new slew of businesses will tap Democratic lobbyists to court congressional Democrats. And when those Democratic lobbyists come calling – whether on expanding tax-free health savings accounts, extending corporate tax cuts, striking a free-trade agreement with South Korea or eliminating the estate tax – they remain unsure that cohorts in the Capitol will be listening.
“I don’t want to put the whole burden on Democrats on the Hill, but one of the things I think all of us would say is it would be better if our friends there could be better at returning phone calls and giving everyone the chance to have their say,” Andresen said.