K Street mints money from regs surge

Lobbyists are minting money from the surge in government regulations.

Top K Street officials say their regulatory work has accelerated in recent years thanks to the sprawling rule-making from the healthcare and financial reform laws.

ADVERTISEMENT
“We’re in this situation now, where we have this strong executive branch [that is] taking full advantage of being able to do whatever they want,” said Rich Gold, a partner at Holland & Knight.

While revenue from traditional lobbying work has flatlined, K Street firms say their regulatory practices are thriving. Several lobbyists said federal agencies are increasingly “where all the action is.”

The increase in regulatory lobbying is “borne out of necessity,” said a lobbyist at a Washington regulatory firm who requested anonymity to speak freely.

“You’re trying to develop clients, and while you can’t sell them on bills coming out of Congress, you can sell them ... on working with the agencies.”

Public interest groups, which typically advocate for tougher regulations, say they too are spending more time at federal agencies than ever before.

“Regulatory lobbying is skyrocketing,” said Craig Holman, a lobbyist at the consumer watchdog group Public Citizen. “Reportable lobbying at agencies has gone up in recent years, and that’s only a small part of the lobbying that goes on.”

The precise amount that is spent lobbying regulators is not known, since much of that work is not disclosed to the public under the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA).

But it’s clear that companies are shelling out big bucks to stay on top of new rules and regulations.

A regulatory lawyer can earn anywhere from $350 to $1,000 per hour when working for a client, depending on the firm and the attorney’s level of experience, according to several accounts.

And one of the most important but little-known steps in the regulatory process, the filing of a comment letter on a proposed rule, could cost a company up to $100,000, one source said.

“A regulatory project can far exceed a yearly retainer of a typical lobbying representation,” said the regulatory lobbyist. “For all we think about the money that goes into lobbying, it’s chump change.”

The increased focus on regulation coincides with a general rise in the regulatory state under both Democratic and Republican presidents.

While experts disagree about whether the pace of regulating has increased under Obama, his administration has issued a slew of high-profile regulations that affect individuals and businesses.

Between 2009 and 2012, the administration issued 330 rules that are estimated to have an economic impact of at least $100 million, according to the Congressional Research Service.

“What the Obama administration has been doing in the last couple years to grow the administrative state means that the non-LDA reportable work has grown and will continue be a more importance force in the future,” said Kevin O’Neill, a partner at Patton Boggs.

“The LDA is the tip of the iceberg, whereas the center of gravity has shifted to what’s below the surface.”

The lobbying work “below the surface” includes coaching clients on how to deal with regulators and regulations, writing and submitting comment letters and connecting with lower-level agency employees. The outreach to the agencies is only partially revealed by the LDA forms, as only contact with senior administration officials must be disclosed under the law.

With so much money at stake, there has been a realization among lobbyists at law firms that they need to incorporate regulatory expertise into their repertoire, several experts said.

“A lot of attorneys who have done that advocacy work in front of Congress are spending more time in the halls of the agencies now,” O’Neill said. “They’re just following the natural needs of the client.”

The shift toward regulatory lobbying has created a voracious demand on K Street for former regulators, with firms paying top dollar to land their services.

“Literally, the devil’s in the details, so the folks that understand that are going to be top dog,” said headhunter Ivan Adler, a principal at the McCormick Group.

Adler said his clients have snatched up numerous former officials from the Department of Health and Human Services as they seek help dealing with the implementation of the Affordable Care Act.

But with major regulatory efforts underway across the administration, including the second-term push to limit greenhouse gas emissions, regulators of any stripe are hot commodities. 

“For the foreseeable future, until you begin to see legislation moving through Congress, that’s where you’ll focus your hiring attention,” O’Neill said.

Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, another heavyweight lobby shop, has made several hires from the Obama administration, including the addition of Greg Guice, a 14-year veteran of the Federal Communications Commission, in September.

“Part of what they [Akin] were looking for is this new world reality of being somebody that goes regulatory as well as legislative — making sure you can move between the two worlds,” Guice told The Hill.

Many of Akin’s lobbyists spend a majority of their time on Capitol Hill, so Guice’s hire was intended to ramp up the firm’s involvement at the agency level.

A former administration official who runs the policy and regulatory shop for a Fortune 50 company in Washington said businesses increasingly realize that regulations will be a central focus of Obama’s second term.

“It seems that stakeholders of all sorts, including business and the firms they hire, have realized that for the foreseeable future, the primary path toward policy development will be through the regulatory process,” he said.