What K Street Does All Day

And what it doesn’t do.

National Journal
Brian Mcgill, Brian Resnick and Michael Catalini
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Brian McGill Brian Resnick and Michael Catalini
July 11, 2014, 1 a.m.

How do lob­by­ists spend their time? Not ex­actly the way their bosses would like them to.

Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s stra­tegic-re­search team asked 95 heads of gov­ern­ment-af­fairs of­fices how they wanted their or­gan­iz­a­tion or di­vi­sion to be al­loc­at­ing its hours—and then asked them to as­sess how the time was ac­tu­ally be­ing spent.

What the team found was that or­gan­iz­a­tions were spend­ing more time than their lead­ers con­sidered ideal on “in­ward fa­cing” and ad­min­is­trat­ive activ­it­ies, such as event plan­ning and cli­ent man­age­ment, and less time on “out­ward fa­cing” and stra­tegic activ­it­ies, such as policy-po­s­i­tion de­vel­op­ment and “¦ ac­tu­al lob­by­ing. On av­er­age, those sur­veyed said their of­fices spend 22.4 per­cent of their time in a giv­en day on lob­by­ing. They’d like them to spend 28.2 per­cent.

Over­all, nearly half of those polled said their of­fices were do­ing less dir­ect lob­by­ing than they wanted them to, and lar­ger firms or di­vi­sions—those with six or more em­ploy­ees—didn’t fare much bet­ter than smal­ler ones: Of those that said they were un­der­in­vest­ing in lob­by­ing, the lar­ger of­fices saw a 9-per­cent­age-point gap between real­ity and their ideal, while smal­ler ones re­por­ted an 11.2-point gap. Those gaps come at a cost: The av­er­age 10-per­son shop is los­ing the equi­val­ent of one full-time lob­by­ing staff mem­ber to work that its top ex­ec­ut­ive con­siders less than crit­ic­al.

So why the time-man­age­ment dis­con­nect? Some lob­by­ists ar­gue that there really isn’t one—that bosses have wrong­headed ex­pect­a­tions about how a shop should spend its days.

One area on which heads of gov­ern­ment-af­fairs of­fices thought em­ploy­ees were spend­ing too much time was trade-as­so­ci­ation, mem­ber, and cli­ent man­age­ment. But the lob­by­ists we spoke to say that’s not a dis­trac­tion—it is a cru­cial part of the job. Some folks spend a lot of time on the Hill, one former auto­mobile lob­by­ist says; oth­ers spend “huge blocks of time” on con­fer­ence calls, re­port­ing to cor­por­ate cli­ents. “If all you have is shoe-leath­er lob­by­ists … that won’t work,” she says. “Cli­ents are very de­mand­ing.” One lob­by­ist whose port­fo­lio in­cludes edu­ca­tion policy agrees. “A lot of your time as a lob­by­ist is ser­vi­cing the needs of people who call you,” he says.

And that’s as it should be, says one health care lob­by­ist: “If any­thing, I think we need to do a bet­ter job of reach­ing out to our mem­ber­ship and hav­ing sub­stant­ive con­ver­sa­tions. We can send out as many emails as we want, but if you’re not hav­ing sub­stant­ive, in­ter­act­ive con­ver­sa­tions, we can’t ef­fect­ively rep­res­ent them or get their buy-in.”

The cur­rent health care land­scape also re­quires lob­by­ists to un­der­stand policy at a dif­fer­ent level, she says: “You can’t ef­fect­ively rep­res­ent your mem­bers un­less you know what’s hap­pen­ing on the ground.” Nor can you bring much to your re­la­tion­ships on the Hill if you’re not well-in­formed. “I think a lot of people can get in the door by name alone—people will be po­lite and ac­cept meet­ings—but in or­der to have a good chance to in­flu­ence policy, or even to be ef­fect­ively heard, one needs to un­der­stand that policy to have a cred­ible voice.”

And speak­ing of man­aging re­la­tion­ships on the Hill, does that count as “lob­by­ing”? Even some lob­by­ists them­selves aren’t en­tirely sure. “If you’re an en­ergy com­pany and you haven’t spent a whole bunch of time get­ting to know John Din­gell, you’ve com­mit­ted mal­prac­tice,” says one to­bacco lob­by­ist. “You want to have some re­la­tion­ship with every sen­at­or, every­one from the South­ern del­eg­a­tion. Is that lob­by­ing? You’re not ne­ces­sar­ily talk­ing about bill A or bill B.” And if you’re in the Wash­ing­ton of­fice of a big com­pany, you’ve got to spend some time main­tain­ing your re­la­tion­ships with Hill staffers. “Every time you go in, you don’t want to be ask­ing for something,” he says.

If the heads of of­fice are in­clud­ing re­la­tion­ship-build­ing in their defin­i­tion of lob­by­ing, then the as­pired-to num­bers “might be right,” he al­lows. But “just say­ing, “˜I want my guy to lobby more,’ is ig­nor­ant without know­ing the con­text of each in­di­vidu­al per­son.” He says he thinks the gap mainly re­flects the av­er­age head of of­fice’s view that “my people should be work­ing harder.” He adds, “That does tell you something, which I’ve known for a lot of years: Most lob­by­ists are “¦ lazy un­less you put the spurs to them.”

The ear­marks ban has cer­tainly af­fected the way K Street does busi­ness, but the to­bacco lob­by­ist says its im­pact has been over­blown. “If you hon­estly think that I haven’t figured out a way around the ear­mark ban, you are not giv­ing me suf­fi­cient cred­it,” he says.

But the way Con­gress op­er­ates—or doesn’t—def­in­itely in­flu­ences how lob­by­ists spend their time. “Con­gress is only in town a couple of days a week,” says the lob­by­ist who works on edu­ca­tion policy, adding that it can be “very hard to ac­cess them.” The health care lob­by­ist says that the op­por­tun­it­ies to lobby dir­ectly—the mo­ments in time, the points of ac­cess—simply di­min­ish the less act­ive Con­gress is. And in its first year, the 113th Con­gress passed few­er sub­stant­ive bills than any Con­gress in the past 20 years, ac­cord­ing to the Pew Re­search Cen­ter.

In oth­er words, it’s not al­ways simple to find some­body to lobby, or something to lobby on these days. Which leads to more anxious cli­ents, which leads to more cli­ent man­age­ment, which leads to more K Streeters spend­ing less time on the Hill.

For more from Na­tion­al Journ­al‘s stra­tegic re­search team, go to our Present­a­tion Cen­ter.

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