Coronavirus shakes up K Street

Greg Nash

The coronavirus is disrupting work on K Street, with business groups scrambling to make sure their industries are protected from the fallout and lobbyists forced to rethink plans for meetings and high-profile events.

As the virus brings changes to daily life, with schools closing, events being canceled and people taking new precautions, industry groups are also ramping up their lobbying to weigh in on the political response.

In recent days a flood of executives from different industries have been meeting face-to-face with administration officials and Congress. President Trump on Wednesday met with nearly a dozen CEOs from the nation’s largest financial institutions amid fears of an economic slowdown. Trump earlier in the month also met pharmaceutical executives and Vice President Pence sat down with executives from major airlines and their trade group Airlines for America.

The lobbying efforts and meetings are likely to ramp up as the outbreak spreads and worries about the fallout grow.

“There are clients and entities that we deal with that are facing real existential threats that they haven’t had to deal with since 9/11. They’re concerned about their people,” Ivan Zapien, a partner at Hogan Lovells, told The Hill.

On Wednesday night, Trump said he would ban travel from Europe for 30 days. Groups were quick to warn of the financial fallout, with the U.S. Travel Association saying the ban would “exacerbate” the damage to the industry and Airlines for America saying the move would “hit U.S. airlines, their employees, travelers and the shipping public extremely hard.”

Trump and Congress are also negotiating a package to counter the economic effects of the outbreak. House Democrats moved quickly, voting on a package Thursday that includes paid sick leave, food assistance and funds for unemployment benefits. But Senate Republicans say they will reject that bill. Trump has floated a payroll tax cut, but that idea has faced criticism from both parties.

Most visibly, the outbreak is also changing how K Street does business.

Shoe-leather lobbyists constantly walk the halls of the Capitol or head to the White House to work for their clients, but increasingly those meetings are being handled over the phone. That work could be even harder to do in person after the Capitol complex restricted entry on Thursday to anyone other than members, staff, credentialed press and official business visitors.

“I’ve had at least a dozen Hill and administration meetings this week that have been requested to be turned into phone calls. When we chat with folks, it seems a standard, ‘things are crazy up here’ is the response,” Brian Johnson, a principal at the Vogel Group, told The Hill.

“So far everything has been shifting to phone calls except the government meetings,” said Bruce Mehlman, a partner at Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas. “But if the pattern in the U.S. mirrors the patterns abroad, things will become much more virtual very soon,” he continued. “By contrast things that businesses are in charge of — conferences, fly-ins, retreats — have quickly gone virtual or canceled.”

Some in-house corporate lobbyists have found they can’t travel because of company restrictions on non-essential travel. Lobbyists who are not based in D.C. have had no choice but to move to virtual meetings.

“Companies and clients have turned their attention to more critical staffing and operations. The last thing companies are focused on is a bill is going to be introduced or a meeting with a lawmaker or staffer when you’re dealing with having your employers work remotely,” said Michael Drobac, senior advisor at McGuireWoods Consulting.

The House is scheduled to leave on Thursday for a recess next week. But Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) dismissed calls this week from colleagues to close the Capitol. “We are the captains of the ship. We are the last to leave,” the Speaker told her caucus in a closed-door meeting.

The Senate decided to cancel its recess on Thursday, to continue work on a coronavirus response.

The coronavirus is also hitting during peak season for congressional fly-ins as groups and their members from around the county flock to Capitol Hill to make their voices heard as lawmakers take up appropriations work and other important legislation.

Prime Advocacy, a nonpartisan firm that helps organize fly-ins, planned 90 fly-ins and scheduled over 10,000 meetings on the Hill in 2019. Eighty percent of their business is between Feb. 1 and July 1.

“Half our fly-ins are continuing on as normal, the other half are transitioning to conference calls and members and staff alike are both taking these conference calls. We only had maybe a handful of clients canceled outright,” Lincoln Clapper, Prime Advocacy’s director of sales and marketing, told The Hill on Tuesday. “Response rate has been incredible in terms of clients opting to do a virtual fly-in.”

Despite the challenges, Clapper said that as long as the work of Congress goes on, advocacy groups would need to stay engaged. 

“Appropriations are going to go on no matter what. I think these groups have to be able to counter that and setting up these conference calls are a great way to get their voices heard while remaining safe.”

Two clients, the Kidney Cancer Coalition and National Pest Management Association, went ahead with in-person fly-ins this week.

“The plan is something we set up for snow days. A few years ago, we had ‘Snowmageddon’ so we set up infrastructure to counter that. This is kind of similar in terms of the fallout,” Clapper said.

Rob Chamberlin, co-founder of Elevate, has had meetings switch to calls and all of the multiple fly-ins his clients had scheduled for later this month are now canceled. 

Lobbyists are bracing themselves for more changes to their day-to-day business and they expect to remain busy as clients press for advice on how to navigate the outbreak.

A number of firms have released notices to clients, including Akin Gump, which published a list of policy proposals for coronavirus stimulus measures on Tuesday, and the Vogel Group, which sent a note to clients the same day about the impact the virus might have on businesses and how the government will respond.

“From a public policy and public affairs perspective, companies should be taking this seriously. Take necessary precautions and be mindful of consumer sentiment,” Drobac said about the advice he shares with clients.

Tags Coronavirus Donald Trump K Street Lobbying Nancy Pelosi

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