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The Life Of A Lobbyist In A Do-Nothing Congress

Dec 21, 2013
Originally published on December 21, 2013 2:00 pm

The 113th Congress has finished its first session, and lawmakers enacted fewer than 60 laws. No Congress since 1947 has done so little legislating.

That's bad news for many of Washington's lobbyists. Howard Marlowe, for one, hasn't been feeling the joy of his job.

"One of the driest periods in the 35 years that I've been lobbying," he says.

An old Washington hand, Marlowe has a small, boutique lobbying firm specializing in local infrastructure projects. His client base includes airports, shipping ports and local governments.

Marlowe & Company already took a hit when Congress swore off earmarks, the targeted money that financed many infrastructure jobs.

This year is even worse. Marlowe says congressional committees have lost interest in government programs.

"You get more press attention, more cameras, more ink time, whatever it may be, by holding an oversight hearing than you do by holding a legislative hearing on how to fix our roads or what to do to improve education," he says.

So for now, Marlowe says, his firm is branching out.

"I search for non-lobbying work," he says. "We do some policy work here for private sector, somewhat for government agencies."

Marlowe's also a former president of what, until this fall, was the American League of Lobbyists. Members voted for an image makeover, and now it's the Association of Government Relations Professionals — another sign of the times.

But the pain of 2013 isn't evenly divided. Earmark specialists like Marlowe are hurt, and so are lobbyists employed by financially strapped law firms.

But other lobbyists say they've got more than enough to do.

Tom Susman, head lobbyist for the American Bar Association and a student of the lobbying business, says this year had opportunities to build relationships, plan ahead and do plenty of other lobbying work.

"Lobbying is a lot more than just spending time on Capitol Hill," he says. "Coordinating and building coalitions, working on arguments and gathering data, drafting, working with constituent groups, grassroots, local leaders, interested industries."

According to the numbers, clients are spending less on Congressional and executive-branch lobbying than they did a year ago. Third-quarter revenues among registered lobbyists are about 4 percent lower than the same period last year — although many others are not registered.

More broadly, lobbying expenditures are down about 10 percent from 2010 — but that's 10 percent down from the biggest year on record, the year of the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd-Frank financial reforms and other heavily lobbied legislation.

The bill for all that surpassed $3.6 billion. For 2013, total reported lobbying expenditures could easily hit $3 billion.

American University professor James Thurber says the numbers don't tell the whole story.

"If you look at the ads in all the specialized media and elsewhere, there's a lot of activity going on," Thurber says.

Lobbyists are concentrating more on executive branch agencies, where regulations are written, he says. Capitol Hill has turned into a place to play defense, he adds.

There is talk around the Capitol of a new cooperative spirit, inspired by the budget deal. Then again, 2014 is the midterm election year, and elections usually take priority over lawmaking.

"The easiest way to make money as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., is to stop things," Thurber says. "When you have a do-nothing Congress and you're lobbying for the status quo — you don't want something new to happen — it's pretty easy to win."

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And the outgoing Congress enacted fewer than 60 laws. That makes it the first Congress since 1947 to pass so little legislation. That would seem bad news for Washington D.C.'s legions of lobbyists, but as NPR's Peter Overby reports, some lobbyists have found opportunities in the age of congressional gridlock.

PETER OVERBY, BYLINE: Howard Marlowe, a old Washington hand, hasn't been feeling the joy of his job.

HOWARD MARLOWE: One of the driest periods in the 35 years that I've been lobbying.

OVERBY: Marlowe has a small boutique firm. He specializes in local infrastructure projects. His client base includes airports, shipping ports and local governments. Marlowe and company already took a hit when Congress swore off earmarks that targeted money that used to finance many infrastructure jobs. And this year is worse. Marlowe says congressional committees have lost interest in government programs.

MARLOWE: You get more press attention, more cameras, more ink time, whatever it may be, by holding an oversight hearing than you do by holding a legislative hearing on how to fix our roads or what to do to improve education.

OVERBY: So for now, Marlowe says his own firm is branching out.

MARLOWE: I searched for non-lobbying work. We do some policy work here for private sector, somewhat for government agencies.

OVERBY: Marlowe's also a former president of what, until this fall, was the American League of Lobbyists. Member voted for an image makeover and now it's the Association of Government Relations Professionals, another sign of the times. But the pain of 2013 isn't evenly divided. Earmark specialists like Marlowe are hurt. So are lobbyists employed by financially strapped law firms. But other lobbyists say they've got more than enough to do.

TOM SUSMAN: Lobbying is a lot more than just spending time on Capitol Hill.

OVERBY: This is Tom Susman. He's head lobbyist for the American Bar Association and also a student of the lobbying business. He says this year had opportunities to build relationships, plan ahead, and do plenty of other lobbying work.

SUSMAN: Coordinating and building coalitions, working on arguments and gathering data, drafting, working with constituent groups, grassroots, local leaders, interested industries.

OVERBY: Here's what the lobbying business looks like by the numbers. Clients are spending a bit less than they did a year ago on congressional and executive branch lobbying. Third-quarter revenues are about 4 percent lower than the same period last year. That's revealed in the filings by registered lobbyists, although many others are not registered.

More broadly, there's been about a 10 percent drop in lobbying expenditures since 2010. But that's 10 percent down from the biggest year on record, the year of the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd-Frank financial reforms, and other heavily lobbied legislation. The bill for all that surpassed $3.6 billion. For 2013, total reported lobbying expenditures could easily hit 3 billion.

And American University professor James Thurber says the numbers don't tell the whole story.

JAMES THURBER: If you look at the ads in all the specialized media elsewhere, there's a lot of activity going on.

OVERBY: Thurber says lobbyists are concentrating more on executive branch agencies. That's where regulations are being written. And he says Capitol Hill has turned into a place to play defense.

THURBER: The easiest way to make money as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C. is to stop things. And so when you have a do-nothing Congress and you're lobbying for the status quo, you don't want something new to happen. It's pretty easy to win.

OVERBY: There is talk around the Capitol of a new cooperative spirit inspired by the budget deal. Then again, 2014 is the midterm election year and elections usually take priority over lawmaking. Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.

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