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Convention is not siren call for K Street firms

Limited access to lawmakers dampened enthusiasm on K Street for this week’s Republican National Convention, leading many lobbyists to keep a low profile or skip the festivities altogether.

Lobbyists said the headaches of complying with ethics rules for the convention, along with the business pressures of a down economy, discouraged some from heading south to Tampa.

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“Talking to people around town, there is a lukewarm interest,” said Gregg Hartley, vice chairman of Cassidy & Associates. 

Hartley said his firm, one of K Street’s top earners, will have a few lobbyists at each convention but will not be staging events. The firm had a bigger presence in prior years, hosting a reception for telecom companies in New York during the 2004 GOP convention.

Perhaps the principal reason Tampa won’t see much of K Street is the decision by many lawmakers to skip the convention and focus on their campaigns. That reduces opportunities for lobbyists to meet with members and do business on the issues.

“For K Streeters, there is certainly not the sense that you would have had in Philadelphia [for the 2000 GOP convention] where every major GOP leader had a package of events throughout the week,” Hartley said. “Times have changed. There’s just not those opportunities anymore, and that’s just fine.”

Another factor discouraging K Street is a 2007 ethics law that bans lobbyists and companies that lobby from holding events to honor lawmakers.

Though the House Ethics Committee has interpreted the law as allowing groups of House members to be honored at events, lobbyists are still skittish about running afoul of the rules.

They have reason to be wary, as watchdog groups are always on the lookout for parties bankrolled by K Street. In a letter sent to lawmakers earlier this month, organizations such as Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington (CREW), Democracy 21 and Public Citizen asked lawmakers to skip any events hosted by lobbyists at the conventions.

“The new guidelines have definitely made it more difficult to plan,” said Matt Keelen, president of the Keelen Group. “It’s more a response to organizations like CREW sending missives up to Capitol Hill saying they are going to be watching every move that everyone makes.”

Firms are also being careful about how they spend their money in a year when lobby revenue is stagnant.

“You can’t discount the fact that the economy is a factor,” said Michael DiRienzo, managing director of the Klein & Saks Group, who’s not going this year.

 “A lot of budgets have been scaled back for the conventions. Companies are … not sending as many lobbyists as they have in the past,” said Missy Edwards of Missy Edwards Strategies, who is going to the convention.

DiRienzo said he’s noticed a change in one convention-year tradition, with fewer lobbyists picking up the phone to call him in search of event tickets.

“Some groups and lobbyists are realizing that your money and time can be better spent in Washington after Congress returns,” DiRienzo said.

Keelen disagreed, saying that, while interest in the convention among his colleagues was low last month, the pick of Rep. Paul Ryan (R-Wis.) as the GOP vice presidential candidate made an impact.

“I was thinking that would be the case a month ago, but that hasn’t held out,” Keelen said. “It has actually turned my vacation on its head.”

Not all lobbyists and trade groups are abandoning the convention. Holland & Knight, for example, is hosting events during the week.

Others advised lobbyists who are going to the convention to stick to their clients’ needs and not make waves.

“From a business perspective, low-profile is probably better,” Hartley said. “Go do what you need to do, but don’t spend a lot of money.”