Democratic lobbyists bristle at party's attack on K Street

Democratic lobbyists bristle at party's attack on K Street

Democratic lobbyists find themselves in a tough spot, eager for their party to recapture the White House in 2020 but also bristling at the top-tier candidates’ attacks on K Street.

The influence world’s ranks are packed with lobbyists with ties to Democratic lawmakers on Capitol Hill or who work for issues or industries aligned with the left.

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With candidates like Sens. Elizabeth WarrenElizabeth Ann WarrenWarren goes local in race to build 2020 movement 2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes 2020 Dems put focus on stemming veteran suicides MORE (D-Mass.) and Bernie SandersBernie Sanders2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes 2020 Dems put focus on stemming veteran suicides The Memo: Democrats confront prospect of long primary MORE (I-Vt.) calling for tougher rules on how the lobbying world works, those lobbyists find themselves walking a difficult tightrope.

Some worry that many of the proposals from Democratic contenders won’t just target corporate interests or money, but unfairly target all of those working in the influence world.

“This move is not new. All of K Street have been dealing with this since at least Obama was on the trail,” said Cristina Antelo, CEO of Ferox Strategies. “Bashing lobbyists is a cheap and easy soundbite that belittles the vital role we play.”

Antelo has long had Democratic ties, working for Hillary ClintonHillary Diane Rodham Clinton2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes The Memo: Democrats confront prospect of long primary Manafort sought to hurt Clinton 2016 campaign efforts in key states: NYT MORE in the Senate in 2004 via the Democratic Steering Committee and volunteering on her 2008 presidential campaign.

One Democratic lobbyist said that while progressives might want to target lobbyists working for interests that are counter to their ideas, that is not all of K Street.

“Lobbyists with clients that are unsavory, for example if you’re lobbying for the NRA [National Rifle Association] ... but to put that on all of the industry is wrong,” the lobbyist, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said to The Hill.

Others worry Democratic candidates’ policies will fail to bring the right changes to K Street.

Warren has proposed an aggressive plan to target what she calls “Washington corruption,” with a proposed tax on annual lobbying expenditures of at least $500,000 a year, new definitions of what constitutes a lobbyist and bans on lobbying for foreign entities. Much of Warren’s plan, though, would require congressional approval, a tough lift if the GOP keeps the Senate.

Warren on Tuesday also released a plan to block federal candidates from taking corporate PAC money and establish public financing for conventions.

Sanders has also proposed a ban on corporate funding for conventions, as well as a lobbying ban on former members of Congress and senior staffers. His proposals could be enacted without Congress.

The lobbying industry has pushed back on those proposals as unconstitutional, arguing they would be a restriction on First Amendment rights.

Democratic lobbyists said while those proposals may be intended to target K Street’s biggest spenders, they could also silence voices for progressive causes.

Michaeleen Crowell, a former Sanders chief of staff, is a principal at S-3 Group, a bipartisan public affairs and lobbying firm.

“Progressives need to have a seat at the table. Being able to discuss policy differences and work collaboratively with those who have any number of political opinions allows me to bridge divides and work toward creative and innovative solutions,” Crowell told The Hill.

Kate Mills at Monument Advocacy worried proposals going after lobbyists who donate to candidates are too broad.

“The question is with all these plans, how are they going to deal with people like me? I’m a lobbyist and it’s personal money when I donate to campaigns and you know who all my clients are,” Mills told The Hill.

Prior to joining Monument in 2015, Mills was assistant director of the Office of Congressional Relations at Immigration and Customs Enforcement under President Obama and was a senior counsel to Rep. Zoe LofgrenZoe Ellen LofgrenHillicon Valley: TikTok faces lawmaker anger over China ties | FCC formally approves T-Mobile-Sprint merger | Silicon Valley lawmakers introduce tough privacy bill | AT&T in M settlement with FTC Silicon Valley lawmakers introduce tough privacy bill to regulate top social media platforms Bipartisan group reveals agricultural worker immigration bill MORE (D-Calif.).

Mills said candidates would need to refine their proposals for K Street.

“They’re going to have to pick and choose. Maybe they would have to look at in-house lobbyists and PACs before they look at contract lobbyists.”

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Sanders’s campaign defended his push for new rules on K Street.

“Corporate lobbyists should be very afraid of a Bernie Sanders presidency. Any lobbyist who thinks Bernie Sanders will give an inch on confronting corporate power in Washington is living in denial. The American people are sick of the unprecedented corruption and greed they see, and they are demanding a political revolution to end lobbyists’ grip on Washington,” Briahna Joy Gray, Sanders’s national press secretary, said.

Warren’s campaign did not respond to a request for comment.

Talk of tougher rules on lobbying is nothing new and has long been a potent message for Democrats and progressives.

Obama also vowed to get tough on K Street as a candidate, running on proposals that aimed at shutting the revolving door between government and industry and rejecting corporate money.

Obama blocked recent registered lobbyists from working in his administration and former officials couldn’t contact the agency they worked for until two years after leaving.

But critics questioned the effectiveness of those rules, noting that many former senior Obama officials went on to lobby for trade groups and major businesses. Victoria Espinel, a former Obama adviser on intellectual property, is CEO of BSA | The Software Alliance, and former press secretary Jay Carney is senior vice president of global corporate affairs at Amazon.

President TrumpDonald John TrumpGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial Warren goes local in race to build 2020 movement 2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes MORE undid many of Obama’s lobbying rules. Under Trump, agency officials are prevented from lobbying the agency they worked with for up to five years but are allowed to lobby other agencies.

Antelo also questioned the effectiveness of Obama’s tougher rules.

“The Obama policy led to more folks going underground and underreporting their contacts, not a reduced impact of lobbying. More secret meetings at Caribou Coffee instead of the EEOB,” she said, referring to the Eisenhower Executive Office Building.

A persistent argument against tougher restrictions on lobbying is that they would lead to more so-called shadow lobbyists, those who do lobbying work but do not register. A lobbyist must register with the Lobbying Disclosure Act (LDA) if they spend 20 percent or more for a particular client on lobbying activities.

“People say I’ll just be a consultant and limit my time with that client but still produce the same results for them,” Mills said.

Warren would revamp the definition of lobbyist to require anyone who lobbies to register with the LDA, removing the 20 percent baseline.

Burt some Democratic lobbyists are brushing off the attacks on their industry. They say it’s not surprising that Warren or Sanders would take on K Street on the campaign trail. 

“There are no concerns at this point because this is not surprising to anyone,” one Democratic lobbyist told The Hill. “If this was Joe BidenJoe BidenGOP senators balk at lengthy impeachment trial 2020 Democrats make play for veterans' votes 2020 Dems put focus on stemming veteran suicides MORE saying this or any conservative-leaning candidate, I think people would be surprised, but people would also be thinking, ‘He’s appealing to the liberal base.’ ”

Another Democratic lobbyist said K Street had seen such rhetoric before.

“This is no different than what President Obama said he would do,” that lobbyist said.

Warren’s and Sanders’s proposals, though, would go further than Obama.

Antelo said Democratic candidates should instead be pushing proposals that increase transparency on K Street, allowing lobbyists for all sides to do their work, while being more open.

“Lobbying isn’t going away,” she said. “They should focus instead on creating an environment that promotes disclosure.”