Lobbyists in ‘frenzy’ over GOP’s tax-reform push

Greg Nash

For lobbyists in Washington, it’s all tax reform, all the time.

The GOP’s consideration of tax legislation has stirred feverish activity on K Street, with an army of lobbyists — even those who don’t specialize in taxes — swarming the Capitol to keep tabs on the bill.

The stakes couldn’t be higher, with Republicans considering a sweeping overhaul of the tax code that could affect business profits for decades to come.

{mosads}“It’s guns ablazing, from what I’ve witnessed. This is the time to get your changes or to shape the policy. Once it goes to the floor, you’re too late in the process,” said one Republican lobbyist who asked for anonymity in order to speak freely.

The GOP lobbyists who spoke with The Hill asked for anonymity so as to not alienate their clients or employers. All of them said the work on tax legislation is consuming their lives.

“It’s a frenzy, there are literally not enough hours in the day to have the discussions anybody who wants to make a change needs to have,” a second Republican said.

There have been more than 500 new lobbying registrations that list advocacy work on tax policy since the beginning of 2017, compared to 264 in all of last year, according to a review by The Hill of disclosure records.

The advocacy around the bill includes big-name fly-in visits to Washington, with the chief financial officers of large corporations looking to meet with lawmakers, the first lobbyist told The Hill.

Right now, those on K Street are focused on the House Ways and Means Committee, the House’s tax-writing panel and the starting point for the legislative push.

Lawmakers on that panel are making edits and proposing amendments to their legislation this week. Once their markup is finished, senators are expected to release their own version of the tax bill.

Republicans are under intense pressure to succeed on taxes after their failure to repeal ObamaCare earlier this year. While the tax legislation has been in the works for months, they have managed to keep most of the details a secret, with even the most connected lobbying groups waiting until the House bill dropped last week.

The ultimate goal is to get a bill to President Trump’s desk by Christmas, before opponents of the various tax provisions — both on and off Capitol Hill — can fully mobilize.

Tax reform is “the thing du jour,” a third Republican lobbyist said. “Having said that, there is a whole shit-ton of pontification going on, but very few people are at that level of saying they know what’s in it.”

  “The universe on the Hill that’s talking about this, the staff making decisions is very small,” he said.

On Capitol Hill, the staffers writing the bill, particularly in the Senate, are mostly working behind closed doors, multiple lobbyists said.

“It’s very hard to interject yourself in a process that is not meant to have much input from outside,” the second lobbyist said. 

While the senior lawmakers and professional staff constructing the bill are talking among themselves, “they’re exiling themselves from anyone who could throw a wrench in this process. … Smarmy lobbyists and backbenchers are not getting their calls returned.”

Republican leaders are making an effort, however, to address the concerns of their members, particularly when opposition to a provision could cost them votes.

“At the end of the day — and this is the advice I gave a client earlier — if you have a pocket full of votes, you have power,” the first lobbyist said. “If you don’t, you’re in trouble.”

“If you’re trying to change something that’s in either draft and you don’t have votes on your side, you’re just a lot of noise.”

To that end, lawmakers are seeking to assuage certain groups — such as the National Association of Realtors and National Federation of Independent Business — that have influential grass-roots networks.

The realtors and the National Association of Home Builders oppose provisions in the bill on mortgage interest, warning the policy change would discourage home ownership.

The National Federation of Independent Business is against the bill in its current form because of the cut on so-called pass through business income. Lawmakers have included provisions to prevent wealthy individuals from cashing in on the benefit, and have also exempted industries that offer services — meaning everything from law firms to family dentists could miss out.

“We are concerned that the pass-through provision does not help most small businesses,” Juanita Duggan, the group’s president and chief executive, said in a statement last week. “This bill leaves too many small businesses behind.”

And the Organization for International Investment — an industry group that represents foreign companies with U.S. operations — is pushing back against a complex excise tax provision aimed at stopping multinational companies from using complicated strategies to avoid paying U.S. taxes.

While Americans for Prosperity, a conservative outside group, largely came out with a statement in support of the House bill, it says the excise tax provision could have unintended consequences for consumers. The group called it their biggest concern with the House tax legislation.

“We’ve started raising the alarm directly through our lobbying,” Levi Russell, the group’s spokesman, told The Washington Post.

Most large corporations fare well under the legislation, and are largely waiting to see what the Senate draft holds in store.

“We’re cautiously looking to figure out how much we want to fight, because the big thing is the corporate tax rate reduction. If we can get the things as written and still get corporate rate down to 20 percent, that’s a win for us. Everything else is kind of gravy,” said an in-house lobbyist at a financial services company.

Wealthy Republicans are also putting on the pressure, with New York Rep. Chris Collins (R) telling reporters on Tuesday that donors are threatening to withhold cash if tax reform doesn’t pass.

“My donors are basically saying, ‘Get it done or don’t ever call me again,’ ” Collins said.

Although there is an overall optimism that tax reform will ultimately reach Trump’s desk, it’s unlikely to get there without some hiccups.

“It’s like they’re jamming 10 years of legislation into five weeks of votes,” the second lobbyist said.

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