K Street faces a challenging task in the year ahead, convincing clients to keep spending on lobbying in a year that is being dominated by President TrumpDonald TrumpFormer defense secretary Esper sues Pentagon in memoir dispute Biden celebrates start of Hanukkah Fauci says lies, threats are 'noise' MORE’s impeachment trial and the upcoming election.
The last three years of the Trump presidency have been a lobbying blitz, with K Street raking in millions as Congress and the administration tackled high-profile trade, health care and tax fights, to name a few.
Now lobbyists are pushing back against the conventional wisdom that work slows down in an election year as the focus shifts from policy to politics, in hopes of keeping that boom going.
Lobbyists who spoke to The Hill said that even in an election year it was important for clients to stay engaged.
“I think people always underestimate how much does get done in an election year, and you risk the train leaving the station without you if you haven’t bought a ticket,” Kevin O’Neill, a partner at Arnold & Porter, told The Hill. “If you compare this to the Super Bowl, you don’t get to the Super Bowl without a lot of practice and a regular season.”
Other lobbyists agreed with the idea that it is crucial for clients to put the work in during an election year to prepare for the next year when Congress will be ready to move on legislation.
“Policy making doesn’t stop during election years. The old adage is if you’re not at the table, you are on the menu. So, it is a critical time for clients to engage, [to] ensure their issues are addressed,” said Darrell Conner, government affairs counselor and co-leader of K&L Gates’s policy practice.
David Thomas, a partner at Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas, said there’s a lot of interest in an infrastructure package, health care and privacy, among other issues that will keep lobbyists busy in 2020.
“A year ago, January of 2019 ... the conventional wisdom was similar, nothing can get done in this Congress, the Democrats are taking over the House, divided Congress, adversarial relationship with the White House,” he said. “A heck of a lot got done at the end of the year.”
Karishma Page, co-leader of K&L Gates’s policy practice, said that appropriations, the National Defense Authorization Act, health care extenders and tax extenders are all areas that will likely be addressed at some point this year.
“Members are also likely to want some ‘wins’ during the campaign season, so the current environment may even incent some bipartisan dealmaking on issues popular with voters such as surprise billing and retirement,” she said.
Page added that Congress can also be expected to leverage its oversight and investigations authority this year. And the administration will also want to work on regulatory issues before the election really kicks off, she added.
The Trump administration has been moving on a number of environmental rollbacks this month, including an overhaul of the National Environmental Policy Act, which would make it easier to approve massive infrastructure projects without lengthy environmental reviews. Trump officials last week also unveiled a new water rule to replace previously rolled-back protections on waterways put in place under former President Obama.
And Trump has signaled that he is eager for wins to tout on the trail, including on trade and other drug pricing, leaving open the prospect of more deals. There has also been talk of tax or infrastructure proposals, though those will be a hard lift to move this year.
The White House has said it will craft a new tax-cut plan, which is unlikely to advance in the Democratic House. Lobbyists said clients will still want to make sure their voices are heard, since many of these proposals could lay the foundation for work in the next Congress.
“An election year is the time for new issues to pop up that will take a couple years to marinate,” O’Neill said.
One issue that kept lobbyists busy in 2019 is expected to remain on the front burner this year: trade. Trump opened the year with two big victories, as Congress passed his updated NAFTA deal and the U.S. and China signed “phase one” of their trade agreement. But there are questions about the implementation of the U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement (USMCA) and the next round of U.S.-Chinese trade talks as well as the likelihood of new flashpoints with Trump threatening Europe with additional tariffs.
“USMCA has a ways to go before it actually becomes active and implemented. No one expects the China and U.S. relationship to be a smooth ride in 2020 because of the agreement that was signed. You have this massive opportunity next week when the U.K. leaves” the European Union, O’Neill explained.
O’Neill added that health care issues could also see action.
Both lawmakers and the administration made tackling high drug prices a priority, but those efforts deadlocked in 2019. House Democrats last year passed a plan to address the issue, but their approach is opposed by Republicans who worry it would put in place price controls.
There are hopes, however, that lawmakers could still move on “surprise” medical bills, which hit patients who unknowingly receive care from doctors outside their insurance network.
Speaker Nancy PelosiNancy PelosiNews media's sausage-making obsession helps no one Klobuchar confident spending bill will be finished before Christmas Five reasons for Biden, GOP to be thankful this season MORE (D-Calif.) has called for attaching legislation on drug pricing and surprise medical billing to a package of these expiring health care programs, like community health center funding, providing a deadline for action this year.
Others noted that with government divided for at least another year, lobbyists will remain important to help clients navigate those challenges.
“You need someone who can help you develop policy approaches and engagement strategies to bridge the widest political gap in the last century. We know how both sides think, and we know the tools to make things move,” Rich Gold, practice group leader at Holland & Knight, told The Hill.
Above all, Scott Weaver, senior public policy adviser at Wiley Rein, said that the uncertainties of Washington’s political climate will keep clients engaged and K Street busy even in an election year.
“The two certainties these days seem to be — uncertainty,” Weaver said. “And if you aren’t actively and strategically protecting your interests, you’re in trouble.”