Biden’s rise in primary calms nerves on K Street

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Lobbyists are breathing a collective sigh of relief with Vice President Joe Biden as the likely Democratic presidential nominee, seeing it as a blow to proposals on the left targeting K Street.

Biden’s rival for the nomination, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), had pushed an ambitious agenda to rein in special interests and corporations. Those who spoke to The Hill said those proposals were now stuck on the back burner, a development that cheered K Street but disappointed progressives.

“I think it’s the lobbyists that have been around longer who like Biden because … he’s got the sense of everything will be going to be back to normal,” Moses Mercado, a principal at Ogilvy, told The Hill. “There won’t be these fluctuations so far to the right or so far to the left.”

“While lobbyists certainly know special interests won’t get a free pass in a Biden administration, they do expect a return to normalcy,” one Democratic consultant said about a potential Biden presidency. “That kind of stability after three years of uncertainty and the prospect of a Sanders administration, that could have been just as bad, is a godsend to K Street.”

Sanders’s lobbying proposals, including a ban on corporate funding for conventions and a lobbying ban on former members of Congress and senior staffers, had rattled many on K Street. But progressives hailed his ideas as the kind of shake-up Washington needs to restrict the influence of corporations and special interests. With Biden now the prohibitive front-runner over Sanders, many on the left worry they have missed a crucial chance to reform K Street.

Biden enjoyed strong support from the influence world, where many of his former aides hold prominent positions and have been prodigious fundraisers. During the race, Biden swore off money from lobbyists or corporate PACs, but critics sought to highlight his ties to K Street.

“I think that it’s worrisome that Biden’s deep ties to established political donors never came under the microscope, because he went from seeming-has-been to presumptive nominee in shocking little time,” Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project at the Center for Economic and Policy Research, told The Hill.

A number of former Biden aides from his time as a senator now hold high-level positions at powerful lobbying firms. Christopher Putala, who founded the lobbying firm Putala Strategies, was a lawyer on the Senate Judiciary Committee for Biden, as was Jeffrey Peck, now a lobbyist at Peck Madigan Jones.

Biden also has allies in Tony Russo, a lobbyist at T-Mobile who served as his legislative counsel in the Senate, and Ankit Desai, an assistant to Biden in the Senate and now a lobbyist at Tellurian.

Sanders’s footprint on K Street is much lighter. Michaeleen Crowell, a former Sanders chief of staff, is a principal at S-3 Group, a bipartisan public affairs and lobbying firm. Crowell did not respond to The Hill’s request for comment.

Sanders’s proposals to reform K Street also came amid a broader Democratic push to put a spotlight on the industry and special interests. Onetime presidential contender Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.) offered her own tough plan to rein in K Street and was one of several candidates to reject corporate donations. House Democrats in March also passed a wide-ranging ethics reform bill.

Many lobbyists downplayed Sanders’ proposals as unlikely to come to fruition.

“I never worried about Sanders living up to this anti-lobbyist point of view,” one lobbyist told The Hill. “Lobbying is a part of our democracy, it always has been, probably always will be.”

Still, Andrew Kauders, managing director at Cogent Strategies, said Biden’s rise was reassuring to Democrats amid the recent scrutiny on K Street.

“I don’t think that has anything to do with our roster of clients, but more the longing in our party for someone to right the ship,” he said.

“With the vice president there is a sense of reassurance, there is a sense of capability and consistency,” added former Rep. Chris Carney (D-Pa.), a senior policy adviser at Nossaman.

Efforts at K Street reform are not new. Former President Obama placed limitations on former lobbyists joining the administration and created hurdles to aides becoming lobbyists after leaving.

Progressives, however, worry that there will be even less of a focus on K Street practices if Biden were to win and pressured to roll back some Obama-era restrictions.

“Establishment Washington bristled at the lobbying ban and feels it was a mistake by Obama,” Hauser said.

Biden’s camp pushed back on those perceptions.

“Joe has spent his entire career in public service fighting to reduce the corrupting influence of money in politics and he’s laid out a bold and ambitious agenda for how as president he would clean up after Donald Trump, who has presided over the most corrupt administration in modern history,” Biden campaign spokesman Michael Gwin told The Hill. “In office, Biden will end frequently-exploited lobbying loopholes, push for legislation mandating that elected officials disclose all lobbyist meetings and communications, and he’ll introduce a constitutional amendment to entirely remove private dollars from federal elections.”

Biden’s proposals call for disclosing communications between lobbyists and elected officials and prohibiting foreign governments’ use of lobbyists, and his campaign has disavowed money from lobbyists, corporate PACs and super PACs.

Hauser said there were encouraging elements in Biden’s broad anticorruption agenda, including proposals to reduce money in politics, restore ethics in government and hold lobbyists to a higher standard of accountability. But he also questioned how Biden would square those principles with his K Street ties.

“I think it would have been good for someone who has had such a long career to have explained his evolution and share lessons learned,” he said.

Biden’s strong position in the Democratic race also comes as the coronavirus pandemic sends industry groups scrambling for financial assistance from Washington.

“In the wake of the pandemic, there are a swath of significant donors to Biden whose corporate interests depend on executive branch assistance,” Hauser added.

Another progressive group, Public Citizen, remained optimistic about the chances for lobbying reform if Biden wins, suggesting that K Street should not be breathing easier.

“I don’t actually think that a Biden presidency, if that is where we go, is necessarily business as usual,” said Lisa Gilbert, vice president of legislative affairs at Public Citizen.

“He is a longtime supporter of everything that we advocate for from public financing to overturning Citizens United to disclosure,” she added. “I don’t think there’s reason to believe that just because he’s been around for a long time, his policies will be old school.”

Gilbert too suggested that lobbying reform is not dead, arguing that if Trump loses office, Democrats will still be under pressure to address many of their concerns over his administration.

“We have all just together experienced the most corrupt administration in history,” said Gilbert. “If we have a game change and we have a Democrat in the White House, no matter who it is, I think anticorruption is going to be a top priority in showing the American people that things are going to be different now.”

Tags Bernie Sanders Donald Trump Elizabeth Warren Joe Biden

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