Changing of the guard at lobbying powerhouse

Changing of the guard at lobbying powerhouse

Change is coming to Washington’s biggest business group.

The top lobbyist for the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, Bruce Josten, is retiring at the end of the year after a 42-year career with the organization.

Josten’s departure — announced during the Democratic National Convention — is reverberating around the K Street community, with many wondering who will fill his shoes.

“As you can imagine, people ask all the time, ‘What are you going to do? Bruce is leaving, the sky is falling,’ ” said Tom Collamore, the senior vice president of communications and strategy at the Chamber.

“Replacing Bruce is impossible. He’s irreplaceable,” he said. “Filling the job, we’ll fill that out.”

Josten has overseen the Chamber’s advocacy operation for 22 years, managing an expansive policy portfolio that is breathtaking in its scope.

Nearly every major issue and bill that lawmakers touch comes under the purview of Josten and his team, which consists of 20 people lobbying Congress alone. That team, Josten told The Hill, is supported by another 150 people at the Chamber who also work with Capitol Hill.

“The business community in general is going to lose a very effective advocate,” Steve Sandherr, the CEO of the Associated General Contractors of America, who has worked  with Josten over the years, said.

“He carries the broadest portfolio of issues, and depth on issues, than anyone I’ve ever met,” Sandherr said. “He can easily move from trade policy — and details of the trade policy — to the Highway Bill to the federal budget with ease and with expertise and with credibility. I don’t know of anybody else who can do that like he does.”

Josten is known for being in the office as early as 5 a.m., and colleagues or can often begin to receive emails shortly thereafter.

“All of us will be able to — we’ll have a little more room in our inboxes,” Collamore joked. “He’s the greatest trawler of what’s going on in the World Wide Web. You can expect stories you would not have seen otherwise if not for Bruce.”

Several allies and colleagues interviewed by The Hill described Josten as having an encyclopedic memory, with American Bankers Association CEO Rob Nichols joking that Josten probably has the Social Security, Medicare and Medicaid actuarial tables memorized.

“I swear to God, I think he probably has,” Nichols says of Josten, a passionate advocate for reforming entitlement programs.

“You can call him up, and he would give you not only the current lay of the land, but also the history of every policy,” said Jeff Birnbaum, president of BGR Public Relations, who has known Josten for years, back to his days as a business journalist.

“He is known for being good-hearted, but his manner is sometimes very direct, occasionally profane, and the tone is sometimes grumpy,” he says. “To an expert like him, in so many different issues, it can be a little annoying to hear people who don’t know as much about these things try to go over the same ground.”

The Chamber has spent more than $38.5 million on advocacy through the first six months of 2016 alone.

Over the last decade, the group has spent almost $809 million to shape policy in Washington; that total doesn’t include the lobbying done by its offshoot groups, including the U.S. Chamber Institute for Legal Reform.

The figure, though, does include the millions the Chamber spends on political activity and advertisements each campaign cycle, another area where many say Josten has played a role.

Despite deepening gridlock in Congress, the Chamber has led the way to several legislative victories, said Aric Newhouse, senior vice president of policy and government relations at the National Association of Manufacturers.

“Looking at the last two or three years, the business community has been successful in advancing its interests, and Bruce has had a large role in that,” Newhouse said, mentioning trade promotion authority, the medical device tax repeal, the passage of $680 billion in tax extenders and the renewal of the Export-Import Bank, among other things.

Others noted Josten’s advocacy work on the debt ceiling, an issue that has bedeviled Congress in recent years.

“His commentary was consistent; it was steady; it was thoughtful,” no matter who was in the White House or in control of Congress, Nichols said. “That’s what made him such a credible voice on that issue.

“There might have been times where he could have scored political points by being more loud or more quiet on that issue,” he added, “but he didn’t.”

Josten also mentioned the passage of trade deals with Central America and South Korea, reauthorizing terrorism risk insurance, and repealing a ban on oil exports as some of the Chamber’s biggest advocacy wins.

Given the breadth of Josten’s work, several advocates on K Street said the Chamber might need more than one person to replace him. Whether the group decides to promote from within or look to hire someone from outside remains to be seen.

Asked how it plans to fill Josten’s position, the Chamber told The Hill it does not comment on internal personnel matters.

Josten’s job is sure to attract plenty of interest, as it is unquestionably one of the most influential advocacy posts in Washington, with a sizable paycheck to match. He had a $2.5 million compensation package in 2014, according to the most recent documents available.

“After 3 different Chamber Presidents, 42 years at the Chamber and past age 65 it was a time that seemed to present less disruption than any of the next few years ahead (new administration, new Congress and then a 2018 election cycle that is the reverse of this cycle),” Josten wrote to The Hill in an email of his decision to retire.

“All of that will require dedicated focus and leaving in the middle of any of those years would simply be far more disruptive for the Chamber, its staff and our Board.”

Given that he is known to continue sending work emails during his annual summer vacation, retirement could be a real adjustment for Josten. But colleagues say he appears ready to pass the torch.

“I was talking to him the other day, and I could tell he’s beginning to think about the next life,” said Collamore. “And I think he’s getting excited.”