Female lobbyists cry foul as Republican lawmakers keep their distance on the Hill

Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.) won’t meet with women behind closed doors on Capitol Hill, fearing how staffers and aides could perceive it.

“It was Bill Graham’s policy, and if it’s good enough for Billy Graham, it’s good enough for me,” Wamp said.

The concern about the appearance of impropriety is not new on Capitol Hill. Perception, after all, is everything in politics.

But female lobbyists are raising new concerns that access to male Republican lawmakers has been further hampered by a warning made earlier this year by House Minority Leader John Boehner.

The Ohio Republican privately told a handful of male Republicans to avoid getting drunk and partying with female lobbyists at after-hour parties on Capitol Hill, according to a July report in the New York Post.

Some women on K Street, who say they are already at a disadvantage to their male counterparts, are upset about the reports of Boehner’s edict and say it represents yet another obstacle. There are just 17 Republican women in the House compared to 56 Democrats, while the Senate has just four Republican women compared to 13 Democrats.

“What year are we in again? Is this 1960?” asked one female Republican lobbyist. “There’s no problem with congressmen drinking at the Capital Grille [Restaurant] with their male lobbyist-friends, which happens every night of the week. But somehow if they do it with a woman, it doesn’t look good. That’s just an outdated attitude and one reason we don’t have more women in top Republican leadership jobs.”

Others think Boehner should have dealt with the members and lobbyists in question and not painted all female lobbyists with the same broad brush as reports about the warning characterized it.

“These are a few bad apples,” one lobbyist said. “Why should all female lobbyists have to pay for their bad behavior and mistakes of an isolated few?”

The female lobbyists interviewed for this article range in age and prominence on K Street. They agreed to speak on a background basis, stating that their careers could be affected if they talked on the record.

Male lobbyists already have a distinct professional advantage in a town where “the old boys’ network” and the perks it brings are alive and well, the female lobbyists say.

Several Republican House members maintain strict standards about meetings and meals with female lobbyists and staffers and say they have been especially careful in the wake of a string of sex scandals over the last few years involving politicians on both sides of the aisle.

Some married Republican lawmakers told The Hill that they never go anywhere with a woman lobbyist or staffer alone — in a car or out to lunch, dinner or drinks.

Wamp, who is retiring this year from the House after losing his campaign for governor, doesn’t believe his approach puts women at a disadvantage.

“You don’t put yourself in that position, but you treat everyone equally,” he stressed.

Several other Republicans interviewed for this article confirmed that they had similar policies to Wamp’s, but refused to speak on a for-attribution basis.

Rep. Jack Kingston (R-Ga.) said he errs on the side of caution and is careful about meeting alone with women. The approach doesn’t affect the way he does business in the least, he said, noting that he has more female legislative assistants than males.

“I usually just ride my bike home and work at nights,” he said. “I don’t do a lot of going out at night with anyone.”

Other members don’t adhere to a formal policy, though they say they do their best to avoid anything that could be misinterpreted as inappropriate.

Rep. Tom Price (Ga.), chairman of the conservative Republican Study Committee, said temptation will always be present in different forms on Capitol Hill, but how you handle it is a matter of character.

“These issues get to the character of the individual — one should always conduct oneself in a manner that is beyond reproach,” he said.

Rep. Artur Davis (D-Ala.), who lost his race for governor and will be leaving Congress at the end of this session, acknowledged that relationships and friendships naturally develop with all different types of people in the district and Washington, including lobbyists.

Davis said members should be more concerned about whether lawmakers’ friendships or relationships with lobbyists are giving their issues greater priority on a member’s agenda than they deserve.

“Obviously, appearances matter,” Davis said. “But the real problem is whether the friendship and the fundraising is affecting the way you do business.”

Rep. Jeff Flake (R-Ariz.), an earmark opponent, said he doesn’t meet with many lobbyists, so it’s not an issue for him.

As far as his staff goes, he joked, “They’re so tired of me by the end of the day, they don’t want to spend many more time with me.”

Inside Republican circles in recent weeks, however, the subject has not been a laughing matter. Members are particularly on edge with the election less than a month away.
Republicans have a good chance to retake the majority — a majority they lost soon after the Rep. Mark Foley (R-Fla.) scandal.

Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers (Wash.), a member of the GOP leadership team, said female lobbyists are overreacting.

McMorris Rodgers said she hasn’t instituted any kind of policy governing private meetings or meals with male lobbyists or staffers because she doesn’t have to — she always keeps her interactions with staff and lobbyists purely professional.

She also praised Boehner, who has promoted several women to senior positions in his office. Paula Nowakowski, who served as Boehner’s chief of staff from 2006 until her death earlier this year, was widely known for her clout and easy access to the top people in Congress.

“Unfortunately, there’s been some inappropriate behavior over the last couple of years, and [Boehner’s] trying to hold us to the highest ethical standard and remind us that appearances matter,” she said.

Concerned Women for America (CWA), a group that stands for family values, applauded Boehner’s efforts to rein in behavior that was either inappropriate or could be perceived as such.

“With so many politicians recently dealing with infidelity and broken marriages, [the female lobbyists who are complaining] should be sensitive to it and care about preserving these marriages,” said Wendy Wright, CWA’s president.

Lawmakers and lobbyists will always have to interact as part of their jobs but should self-police or risk ruining their reputations, said Dave Wenhold, who chairs the American League of Lobbyists.

“In this town, your reputation is the coin of the realm,” he said. “All lobbyists need to maintain their moral compass for their clients’ and their own sake.”