Guiding, molding the lobbyists of tomorrow

It was just another spring afternoon at George Washington University, with students fidgeting slightly in their best business duds as election-law expert Jan Baran offered his counsel.

“My advice to you is, know the rules and obviously follow the rules,” said Baran, a former Republican National Committee adviser. “There is a lot of opportunity. … I hope those of you who do do it know the rules and follow them.”

If Baran sounded like a concerned parent, he was not alone. Some of Washington’s biggest names sat down with students this week for straight talk on the illicit temptations of — lobbying.

The theme of the panel discussion was “Why Be A Lobbyist Today?” Between bribery pleas, shuttered firms and racial slurs, the investigation of fallen K Street king Jack Abramoff has thrown the lobbying industry into disrepair. But Washington thrives on image rehabilitation, and the GWU panelists could find no better place to promote the lighter side of lobbying than an auditorium full of aspiring political advocates.

One young man in a striped, button-down shirt crept to the microphone with a hesitant question: What if the public backlash against Abramoff’s behavior means that lobbyists are no longer necessary?

Jonathan Slade, a GWU professor and partner at the Cormac Group, rushed to his own defense, but John Feehery, a vice president at the Motion Picture Association of America, took a humbler approach.

“Having just been in [lobbying] for a year, I hope they don’t get rid of lobbying,” Feehery said. “I’d be out of a job.”

Feehery, who raised eyebrows with an op-ed this week on his time working with Abramoff allies in the office of ex-Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), opened his remarks Monday night with a little levity.

“I spent 15 years being entertained by lobbyists on Capitol Hill. I’m joking,” Feehery murmured, keeping a poker face throughout.

Slade was one of several panelists borrowing on the crowds of illegal immigrants marching on major cities during the GWU event to make his argument. The immigrants — mostly Hispanic blue-collar workers — are amateur lobbyists for their own individual rights, he contended.

“Hundreds of thousands of people, not just in Washington but all across America, are lobbying on the immigration bills,” Slade said.

But the collegiate attendees were more concerned with how to make a good living from lobbying while keeping their hands clean. A Brazil-born woman wondered whether prior Hill experience is essential for a successful lobbying career, and a tall young man whose green suit pooled around his skinny shoulders could not hide his ambition: “Like a lot of other people here, I’m looking to get into lobbying,” the boy said.

Bloomberg reporter Jonathan Salant attempted to influence the young future lobbyists’ opinions of the press, noting that some industries leak him stories to make their clients look good.

As for the quid pro quo of Capitol Hill favor-trading, it “does not happen very often,” Salant assured the students. “When it does, that’s when the Justice Department comes in.”

His fellow reporter Jeffrey Birnbaum, The Washington Post’s lobbying columnist, was not as diplomatic. When the moderator asked panelists to tee off on their least favorite provisions in congressional lobbying-reform bills, Birnbaum took the opportunity to criticize corporate power.

“I guess it’s my job to be the skunk at the garden party,” Birnbaum said. Lobbying scandals “remind the American people how much they dislike organizations that are wealthy enough to buy their way in.”

Birnbaum’s fellow panelists kept their gazes forward and their lips tightly pursed as the reporter decried a capital “awash in money … in a way the public disdains.”

Sheree Anne Kelly, the only woman on a panel addressing a mostly female crowd, responded by pointing a finger at the media for lobbying’s bad reputation.

“They do assume all lobbyists are awash in money,” said Kelly, a lobbying education director at the Public Affairs Council.

Feehery disagreed, chalking up K Street’s high-rolling ways to the bloated federal budget — “Washington is awash in money because it controls a lot of money” — before deeming the concept of a ban on congressional travel “kind of stupid.”

The House lobbying and ethics bill contains a temporary travel ban originally floated by Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), Feehery’s former boss.

Akin Gump partner Joel Jankowsky shaded his travel-ban opposition with nuance, noting that even if lobbyists were barred from joining congressional trips corporations that employ lobbyists still would be permitted to pay.

Minutes later, Slade answered a question about the long labors of a lobbying career.

“I equate lobbying sometimes with dating. So you can’t expect too much on the first date, if you know what I mean,” Slade quipped, scoring the biggest laugh of the night.