Greg Nash

Lobbyists watching this week’s State of the Union address dealt with two jabs at their profession, once again having to defend themselves against looking like Washington’s “boogyman.”

First, President Obama said K Street had “rigged” the tax code at the behest of corporations. Later, a conservative congressman delivering the Tea Party’s response to the speech accused lobbyists of “lining their pockets” at the expense of taxpayers.
The bipartisan beating is nothing for an influence industry used to getting blamed for Washington’s dysfunction. Still, the president’s address was seen by some lobbyists as reinforcing an unfair and counterproductive stereotype.
“Overall, it was a confident upbeat speech that, as usual, took a populist swipe at lobbyists,” said Nick Allard, the president and dean of Brooklyn Law School and a senior partner at the second largest lobby firm in Washington, Squire Patton Boggs. “Making lobbyists the boogeyman in State of the Union addresses is becoming as predictable as shout-outs to featured guests in the gallery.”
{mosads}Prior to the prime-time event, the new president of the lobbyist trade group, now known as the Association of Government Relations Professionals (AGRP), had issued a statement asking Obama to lay off of K Street.
A little more than halfway into the address, however, Obama blasted the lobbying community while talking about a need for bipartisan agreement on big-ticket items, including tax reform.
“Lobbyists have rigged the tax code with loopholes that let some corporations pay nothing while others pay full freight,” he said, as the television camera focused on House Ways and Means Committee Chairman Paul Ryan (R-Wis.).
“They’ve riddled it with giveaways the superrich don’t need, denying a break to middle-class families who do,” he continued.
K Street quickly took notice of the mention.
James Hickey, a vice president of government affairs at Day & Zimmermann and the incoming president of AGRP, told The Hill that the rhetoric was a “cheap shot” by the president.
“We are not his ‘deflated footballs,’” he said in an email, referencing a recent NFL scandal that alleges one team deflated game balls to secure a win.
“If he wants to know how to avoid more legislative losses over the next two years he might want to just focus on calling better plays,” Hickey continued. “He might also want to consider working with the lobbying and government relations community to help him get into that end zone.”
Obama wasn’t the only elected official to channel frustration at lobbyists on Tuesday evening.
Florida Republican Rep. Curt Clawson, elected in a special election last summer, delivered the Tea Party response to the State of the Union. In what was one of five Republican rebuttals, he took an even bigger swipe at corporations, advocates, unions and trade groups.
“I ran for Congress because I was deeply concerned about the direction of our great nation,” he said. “I saw an America deeply divided, bogged down in partisan bickering with lobbyists and special-interest groups lining their pockets at the expense of hard-working Americans.”
Although Republicans who affiliate with the Tea Party differ from Obama and many Democrats in several ways, there is a common distrust about the influence of big corporations in politics.
“We’ve seen both the far-left and the far-right critical of corporations’ activities in Washington,” said Stewart Verdery, a founder and partner at Monument Policy Group. “I think most companies would be happy to disarm if what was going on in Washington wasn’t so important to them.”
On tax issues specifically, Monument Policy represents some of the biggest players in the game — including the U.S. Olympic Committee, which is involved in legislation questioning whether Olympic medals and winnings should be taxed, and Shell Oil. Verdery points out that smaller players have powerful trade groups working on their behalf, such as the National Federation of Independent Businesses.
What defines a “ ‘special interest’ is all in the eye of the beholder,” he added.
Meanwhile, Sen. Joni Ernst (R-Iowa), who gave the official GOP response, hit many of the same populist notes as her Republican colleagues. She did not, however, mention the “L” word.
“Compromise is a good thing in the legislative process. But in politics, it’s a bad thing,” said David Urban, the president of American Continental Group. “To blame things on lobbyists is much easier to do, and it’s [equivalent to] saying that, ‘We can’t come to some middle ground because of the fact that we’re unwilling to move.’ ”
Obama’s harsh worst for lobbyists come as his administration has softened his position on them.
On the campaign trail in 2007, he vowed not to take money from registered lobbyists — leaving a loophole for unregistered consultants that do similar work —and pledged to keep them out of his administration.  
Once in the White House, however, he has tapped dozens of downtowners and former lobbyists for various executive roles. Perhaps most prominently, Obama brought on former telecommunications lobbyist Tom Wheeler, who became the head of the Federal Communications Commission.
And K Street has played a prominent role in many of the administration’s largest initiatives.
While crafting the Affordable Care Act, for instance, the Obama administration sought input from all sectors that would be impacted — sweeping in some of the largest and most powerful trade groups in the country, Urban said.
“This town would come to a screeching halt without the input and the contributions that lobbyists — and not just those registered ones — make in helping to get things done,” he said, lumping constituents and smaller groups that visit members of Congress into the influence mix. “You get people who come down and express their opinions about the things that Congress is trying to do — and that’s what the Constitution wants them to do.” 

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