POLITICO, “K Street Poised for Big Business in GOP-run Washington,” November 9, 2016
By Isaac Arnsdorf
While political operatives grapple with the enormity of Tuesday’s Election Night surprises, Washington’s lobbyists are starting to position themselves for big business under one-party rule.
K Street expects 2017 to usher in a flurry of lawmaking, especially on tax reform, health care and reducing financial and environmental regulations. Not only could Washington break its habit of gridlock, but the action looks set to happen on some of the highest-grossing causes.
Washington’s lobbying corps was as unprepared for Donald Trump’s victory as political operatives, pundits and journalists despite months of gaming out scenarios and briefing clients on election outcomes. Downtowners are now admitting there wasn’t a serious game plan for the outcome no one expected.
“Absolutely no one predicted a Republican Presidency and a Republican-controlled Congress,” Darrell Conner, co-leader of the K&L Gates public policy and law practice group. “That dynamic changes the calculus for virtually everyone.”
But while Trump railed against lobbyists on the campaign trail, his administration could be a boon for the business of Washington.
“Ninety of what I do as lobbyist is pushing back on government regulations that are quite honestly largely irrational,” said Kathryn Lehman, a Republican lobbyist at Holland & Knight. “If I was spending more time trying to get tax reform done than I was trying to stop government regulations from hurting people, I’d be happier.”
Perhaps the biggest beneficiaries will be the small group of lobbyists who made inroads with his campaign or transition team. They include David Tamasi of Rasky Baerlein Strategic Communications, a finance chair for Trump Victory; American Continental Group’s David Urban, a senior adviser to campaign who delivered the key battleground state of Pennsylvania; former Speaker Newt Gingrich, a senior adviser at Dentons; Mercury’s Michael DuHaime, a former adviser to Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani; Squire Patton Boggs’ Jack Kingston, the former Georgia congressman who was a surrogate for Trump on TV, and Marc Lampkin of Brownstein Hyatt Farber Schreck, who has raised money for the transition.
“There will be scramble around town for the few people who have bona fide Trump relationships and connections,” said Lampkin, who has been involved with fundraising with the transition. “It rejiggers the playing field with regards to presumptions about who’s going to rise. The people who are close to the Clintons were ready to cash in their riches.”
The lesson for lobbyists from the election, according to Tamasi, is “you need to make sure the policies you are advocating for not only are understood by the folks in Washington but also are able to be translated to Main Street and folks across the country who turned out in overwhelming droves to elect this guy.”
Trump’s main conduits to K Street include Scott Mason, a former Lowe’s lobbyist who became the campaign’s director of congressional relations; John Mashburn, the campaign policy adviser who used to be an aide to North Carolina Sen. Thom Tillis; and Joshua Pitcock, who lobbied for Indiana under Gov. Mike Pence.
“He did not have a Washington operation, so he was a very different kind of candidate,” said Kimberley Fritts, CEO of the Podesta Group.
Most firms held off on placing big bets on Democrats flipping the Senate — and are now glad they did. A few managed to scoop up some Republicans before the elections: Amazon.com’s public policy transportation team recently hired Allison Cullin, a professional staffer for Sen. John Thune (R-S.D.) on the Senate Commerce Committee; and Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, the largest lobbying firm by revenue, poached Hunter Bates, a former chief of staff to Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, from Republican Strategies and Justin J. McCarthy, a former congressional liaison for President George W. Bush, from Peck Madigan Jones.
With a close Senate, Democrats with ties to likely minority leader Chuck Schumer will remain in demand. In both parties, the electorate’s clear anti-establishment signal will upend some traditional power centers.
“A lot of people on K Street with Bush and Clinton on their resumes are scared to death,” one Republican said.
Most firms have hedged their bets by becoming bipartisan in recent years, but there are a few Republican shops poised to rise.
CGCN, an all-GOP firm which already had a reputation for understanding not only Republican leadership but Freedom Caucus insurgents, just hired Ken Spain from Koch Industries. Another Republican-heavy firm is Fierce Government Relations, led by Kirk Blalock, a former special assistant to President George W. Bush.
While most lobbyists remain at a loss for how to interact with a Trump administration, they expect Congress to take the lead on legislating, putting them back on familiar turf.
“He ran a campaign with no substance, he didn’t have real plans,” a Republican lobbyist said. “That provides an opportunity for the Hill and downtown to help shape this a bit.”
Lobbyists have been in close consultation with Trump’s transition team. Camp Kaufman of Cornerstone Government Affairs brought clients to meet with the campaign in New York. The transition team hosted separate summits with tech and financial services representatives.
It’s not yet clear what role lobbyists can play in the administration itself, and whether Trump will maintain Obama’s ban on lobbyists joining the administration. Either way, downtowners don’t expect much to come of Trump’s proposed ethics rules, including a five-year ban on lobbying for executive branch officials, lawmakers and their staffers, despite his heated “drain the swamp” rhetoric.
“In the absence of a particular scandal, the idea that Cong is going to prioritize more crackdowns on lobbying is probably not a front-burner item,” said Stewart Verdery, the founder of Monument Policy Group.
“Congress is most active when one party controls House, Senate and White House, and Washington is most relevant to industry when desire for reform overcomes inertial gridlock,” said Bruce Mehlman of Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas. “2017 is going to be a very busy and consequential year.”
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