Lobbyists capitalize on election scramble

Washington’s lobbying industry is buzzing with activity as clients scramble to deal with the compressed election-year calendar.

Time is running out for legislative action on Capitol Hill, with lawmakers set to leave town early this summer to campaign and attend the presidential nominating conventions. 

“We’re at the tip of the spear trying to get things done,” said Gordon Taylor, a principal at Ogilvy Government Relations. “There is an appetite to legislate, and thank goodness for that.”

{mosads}Ogilvy saw a 9 percent increase in its first quarter lobbying revenues over the same period last year. The firm has been lobbying on toxic chemical reform, pipeline safety and the 21st Century Cures bill pushed by the House Energy & Commerce Committee. Other firms reported working on budget issues, the reauthorization of the Federal Aviation Administration and large corporate mergers.

Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, meanwhile, saw an almost 18 percent bump in its revenue numbers over the same time last year, taking in $6.79 million. The firm has been on a hot streak, rocketing to No. 2 in total lobbying revenue last year.

Marc Lampkin, the managing partner of Brownstein’s Washington office, said that the drawn-out presidential selection process has provided a bigger window for legislation than expected.

“The blinding light of the presidential [election] has not emerged yet, so it allows for more attention to be paid to congressional activity,” Lampkin said, “and allows it to be the leading focus.”

Indeed, despite talk that Congress has given up on legislating before the election, the start of 2016 was the most productive first quarter in three years, according to FiscalNote data compiled by Bruce Mehlman at Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas.

The data show that 29 bills were signed into law during the first quarter, compared with only five the year before that. From January to March 2014, 20 pieces of legislation became law.

“Congress remained busy doing its work in advance of the late summer slow down,” Mehlman said. 

His firm earned $2.98 million during the first quarter, a nearly 6 percent boost from the previous year. 

A large chunk of K Street’s top firms saw at least a slight revenue increase from January through March of this year, when compared to the same time in 2015, though a few have seen business fall.

While K Street’s revenue trends largely reflect action — or inaction — in Congress and the administration, many of the twists and turns in recent years can be attributed to changes in the lobbying industry as a whole.

Squire Patton Boggs, once Washington’s top-earning firm, has seen a precipitous slide. It took in $4.7 million in the first three months of 2016, a drop of $5.6 million from the first quarter of 2013.

The drop can be traced back to a merger and restructuring in 2014 that was accompanied by an exodus of lobbyists from the firm. However, the combination of Patton Boggs and Squire Sanders has created a global law and lobby firm with 45 offices in 21 different countries, and executives there are optimistic about the future. 

The first-quarter earnings “reflects our continuing transition to a global firm that does the full range of policy work, only a fraction of which is captured by LDA filings,” said Dave Schnittger, senior policy advisor and spokesman for Squire Patton Boggs’ public policy practice, referring to dislosure filings required by the Lobbying Disclosure Act. 

“We are one of the largest policy firms in the world when you look at the full picture, with significant growth taking place in our non-LDA work even as our LDA operations continue to evolve,” he said.

The first quarter saw continued growth for Cornerstone Government Affairs, which took in more than $4 million in 2016’s first quarter, a 9 percent bump from the year before. 

The firm works in a number of different policy areas, but has an emphasis on federal appropriations. 

While some say the ban on earmarks — the term for specifically allocated spending within bills — has sapped power from the Appropriations panels, Cornerstone partner Jim Richards says they have regained prominence.

The House and Senate Appropriations Committees, he says, are “just as relevant, if not more so, now than they’ve ever been.”

“They are the only vehicle in which to get things done in a lot of ways,” he continued.

Richards and other lobbyists who spoke to The Hill on Wednesday said that many clients would be fighting to attach policy riders to spending bills amid the shortened congressional schedule.

Steve Elmendorf, a partner at Subject Matter, said lobbying work is likely to slow down until after the elections. Many clients, he said, are waiting to see who wins the White House and whether the Senate majority flips to Democrats.

“When there’s uncertainty people tend to do nothing,” said Elmendorf, a partner at Subject Matter. After the elections, though, “there will be pent up demand,” he said, and a lot of time in 2016 will be spent preparing for the uptick in activity in 2017 and 2018.

Subject Matter — known as Elmendorf | Ryan before its merger last year with PR firm Home Front Communications — earned $2.44 million in the first quarter of the year, slightly down from the 2.51 million it earned at the same time in 2015.

Elmendorf knows about revenue trends, having started his firm when the Democrats won control of the House in 2006 — an event that led to a streak of increased lobbying spending on K Street.

“This town always galvanizes around a change in administration, and that will shake up the marketplace a little bit,” said Don Pongrace, the leader of Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld’s public law and policy practice.

While it may not be reflected in lobbying figures, Pongrace insisted that lobbyists would be busy through the end of the year. Akin Gump took in $9.54 million in the first three months of 2016, maintaining its No. 1 slot among K Street earners.

He said there are three tasks that will occupy the time of lobbyists this year: shaping President Obama’s legacy, analyzing the presidential election and making an end-of-the-year push to tie up any loose ends.

“People in the industry are playing into the work to support or oppose the Obama administration legacy initiatives, planning to understand and to explain what the agendas of the two parties may mean for your clients, and working to get done those things that may not get done in the next administration because they’re not part of the next agenda,” he said.


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