Lobbying a vote switch: 'It happened in 20 minutes'

As the five-minute suspension vote wound to a close, trade lobbyists were glued to C-SPAN, resigned to their fate. Though the House bill would hit their clients’ businesses hard, it had already attained 300 votes, more than the two-thirds needed for passage.

Then, the most bizarre turnaround on the House floor in years was set in motion. Six lawmakers, some toting handmade fliers, started lobbying hard against the export-sanctions bill. And one by one, a trickle turning to a flood, 63 members flipped their votes.

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House Small Business Committee Chairman Don Manzullo (R-Ill.)


When the dust cleared, the bill failed, dealing a blow to the leaders who placed it on the suspensions calendar with total confidence in passage. Lobbyists who normally stop at nothing to change congressional minds readily gave credit to the six lobbying lawmakers.

“The key to it was not so much what anybody in industry did but what members did on the floor. They were very effective,” said Edmund Rice, president of the Coalition for Employment Through Exports (CEE). Rice was among those watching in awe as House Small Business Committee Chairman Don Manzullo (R-Ill.) led four colleagues in a fevered sprint to thwart the bill that CEE had been working tirelessly against, a proposal to level harsh sanctions on foreign businesses that sell arms to China.

The sanctions bill was sponsored by International Relations Committee Chairman Henry Hyde (R-Ill.), who led it quickly through a markup and to the floor before the shocking vote Thursday afternoon. Several trade lobbyists noted that Hyde could have averted crisis twice: by making sure his bill got considered under a rule and by calling for a voice vote Wednesday afternoon, when few members were in the chamber and the measure would have passed easily.

“If it had been a voice vote, they could have gotten it over with on Wednesday,” said Storme Street, a lobbyist for the Electronics Industries Alliance (EIA). “I was talking to some staff in offices that weren’t involved in the central core [of the bill], and they said it was one of the most confusing events they’d ever witnessed.”

The EIA, along with the CEE and nine other industry groups, sent a coalition letter to House leaders Wednesday urging them to explore alternate strategies for cracking down on China’s thriving military arms trade. Hyde’s bill, they wrote, would hurt American defense firms making deals with friendly European nations that also work with China.

“There wasn’t really time for anybody on the outside to go up and visit with members,” Rice said. When he and other lobbyists tracking the sanctions bill saw it on the suspensions calendar the previous weekend, they began BlackBerrying back and forth to brainstorm a plan of action. The letter was drafted at a meeting three days before the vote.

“The group did pull together rather quickly when we realized this was happening. It didn’t go through the usual process,” said Patricia Mears, director of international commercial affairs at the National Association of Manufacturers (NAM), who was lobbying on the bill along with chief lobbyist Fred Nichols and Vice President for Trade Frank Vargo.
As the vote approached, the mood was mixed among the lobbyists who wrote the letter. “We were skeptical about our chances to prevail,” said one aerospace-industry expert who actively opposed the sanctions bill.

None of them could have predicted that Manzullo would cut out their coalition letterhead for a makeshift flier that members perused as the vote switching picked up speed.

“Certainly, Manzullo was a leader,” said Hal Northcott, a lobbyist for the American Association of Exporters and Importers. Manzullo enlisted Rep. Jim Kolbe (R-Ariz.) after reading the bill Thursday morning, and Kolbe turned the coalition letter into a “Dear Colleague” letter that he began handing out on the floor. Lobbyists recalled that four more lawmakers took up the lobbying charge while the clock ran out: Reps. Norm Dicks (D-Wash.), Zoe Lofgren (D-Calif.), Todd Tiahrt (R-Kan.) and Anna Eshoo (D-Calif.).

Among the first colleagues to retract their yea votes was Rep. Ray LaHood (R-Ill.), who was presiding from the chair until about four minutes had already expired. At that point, Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.) had replaced him in anticipation of a moment of silence in honor of the victims of the London terrorist attacks that was scheduled to follow the vote.

LaHood said Hastert was as taken aback as anyone at the switching scenario that quickly ensued.

“He actually called me up there and asked me what was going on,” LaHood said.

Two of the bill’s co-sponsors, Reps. Katherine Harris (R-Fla.) and Ted Poe (R-Texas), were among those who quickly followed LaHood to the front of the chamber, red cards in hand, to switch their votes. A Harris spokesman said she reconsidered after realizing that the bill could cause unintended harm to U.S. defense and technology firms.

“It happened — literally — in 20 minutes,” Street said. “There aren’t many times when members don’t know whether they’re voting up or down. I don’t know if people were terribly confident at any time with how the process turned out.”

House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) appeared thrown by the bill’s failure, telling Congressional Quarterly he was “embarrassed” by the vote and accepting blame for it.

The bill is far from dead, despite a deal between Manzullo and Hyde that will pave the way for a streamlined version of the bill to be attached to the State Department authorization bill this week. The Senate must opt to take up and pass its own State Department measure for the export sanctions provisions to become law.

Simmering concern on the Hill about China’s mushrooming economic and military power made the lobbyists’ and the six lawmakers’ jobs harder. Trade lobbyists said the general anti-China sentiment of Hyde’s bill, especially after the European Union’s surprising decision to consider dropping its arms embargo against the communist behemoth, led some lawmakers immediately to lend their endorsement without considering the bill’s finer points.

“There is a lot of concern about the military modernization plans of the Chinese government,” the aerospace-industry expert said. “Any bill that indirectly cites [Chinese] military modernization will be popular.”

Rep. Phil English (R-Pa.), the only author of this session’s many Chinese trade-related bills to vote against Hyde’s sanctions measure, agreed.

“I originally expected to vote for it because of the intention of it,” English said. “When I reviewed the details, I really felt this particular bill was very poorly drafted, reflecting, I think, that it had not come through the Ways and Means Committee. It was structured in a way that would infringe on a number of trade relationships, and particularly defense operations.”

If the bill passed in its initial state, English said, one business in his district would have had to get a separate export license for every transaction it performed.