Lobbying

Lobbyists relish return to Capitol after years of COVID restrictions

People walk down steps with the Capitol in the background.
AP Photo/Mariam Zuhaib
The decision by Capitol officials to end strict rules for visitors on Tuesday, which followed pleas from the lobbyists and House GOP leaders, will boost K Street’s visibility on the Hill.

Lobbyists are celebrating their return to the Capitol as it reopens to the public, ending nearly three years of pandemic restrictions that severely limited physical access to lawmakers.

The decision by Capitol officials to end strict rules for visitors on Tuesday, which followed pleas from the lobbyists and House GOP leaders, will boost K Street’s visibility on the Hill in time for the new Congress. 

Thousands of lobbyists roamed the Capitol campus this week without an appointment or congressional escort for the first time since March 2020, when Congress implemented COVID-19 restrictions. 

“It really was a very nostalgic, almost emotional feeling, truly,” said Brian Pomper, a partner at Akin Gump Strauss & Feld and former Democratic Senate aide. “Talking to other people, I think they felt similarly that it just was so good to be back, and a reminder of just how important face-to-face interaction is for this business, which is very much a people business in many ways.” 

The pandemic restrictions, which were extended after last year’s Capitol attack, made it difficult for lobbyists to meet with lawmakers in their offices. Congressional aides and K Street representatives increasingly relied on Zoom calls because getting people into Capitol buildings required too much time and planning. 

The restrictions prevented lobbyists from loitering in Capitol buildings — taking away the chance encounters that hired guns often lean on to build connections with members of Congress — as well as traveling between offices to attend multiple meetings. 

Now, lobbyists are once again enjoying largely unfettered access to lawmakers and their staffers, something they had become accustomed to before the pandemic. 

“I think it’s always important for lawmakers and their staff to see your face and really hear you tell your story in person. It shows that with all the different draws on people’s time, that you want to make the time to come in and advocate for your issues. So, I do think it will have an impact,” said Carolyn Coda, a lobbyist at Invariant who specializes in taxes and financial services.

“If you want to really go deep in the weeds on an issue, being able to do that in person is going to be really advantageous for those that make the time to do it,” she added.

With pandemic restrictions no longer in place, C-suite executives and other high-profile clients will be more likely to meet with lawmakers in person, potentially boosting their influence, lobbyists said.

“More frequent client visits will probably be the name of the game now,” said Aaron Cutler, a former aide to House GOP leaders who heads lobbying at Hogan Lovells. 

Lobbyists said that the restrictions made it particularly difficult to conduct fly-ins, where hundreds or even thousands of individuals from a particular industry converge on Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers. 

Some companies and trade associations held their fly-ins at other venues, such as Nationals Park, because the Capitol restrictions made the logistics too complicated.

“I think all of us are thrilled that we are finally returning to some normalcy after more than 1,000 days of limited access,” said Alex Vogel, a former Senate GOP aide who heads the Vogel Group. 

Lobbyists expect to keep relying on Zoom for its time-efficiency, particularly for meetings with congressional staffers, while relying more on in-person gatherings with members. 

Virtual meetings, meanwhile, didn’t stop Washington lobbying firms from raking in record-breaking earnings last year. 

The most profitable run in K Street’s history came under the COVID-19 restrictions, which also coincided with massive new government spending and Democratic control of Washington, both of which came with new opportunities and threats for deep-pocketed companies.

Total federal lobbying spending surpassed $3 billion through nine months of 2022, according to nonpartisan research group OpenSecrets, putting it on track to smash previous records. The vast majority of that spending comes from large corporations and their trade associations. 

House Sergeant-at-Arms William Walker announced last week that members of the public would be able to visit congressional offices without an official appointment or escort, according to a memo to lawmakers obtained by The Hill. 

The National Institute for Lobbying and Ethics, a trade association representing lobbyists, pushed those changes in meetings with lawmakers and the Capitol Police, whose leaders wanted to address staffing shortages before reopening the Capitol. 

“If not for our profession, temporary rules might have become permanent,” Paul Miller, the group’s board chairman, wrote in a blog post Wednesday.

Miller credited House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (Calif.) for crafting a reopening plan and spearheading the effort to lift restrictions. 

Shortly after the midterms, McCarthy wrote a letter to Capitol officials urging them to reopen Congress to visitors by the new year, arguing that Americans “have been restricted from exercising their constitutional right to petition the first branch of government” for several years. 

“Reopening the House is more than just a symbolic measure — a government of the people, by the people, for the people requires interaction with the people,’’ wrote McCarthy, who now finds himself locked in a tough fight to be the next Speaker. “It is for this reason that we must welcome Americans from across the nation back to the Halls of Congress.”

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