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In the six weeks since Jack Abramoff pleaded guilty to fraud and conspiracy charges, lobbyists have been called lots of things. Disengaged hasn’t been one of them. But chances are, if you ask a lobbyist to assess the reform proposals circulating around Capitol Hill, you’ll get a shrug of the shoulders. They may have something to say about gift restrictions or travel bans, or gripe about how “zealots” are out to destroy their profession. But in general, they’ve checked out of the process. Moreover, there seems to be little recognition that, at least politically, lobbyists have become the equivalent of hazardous waste — an inevitable byproduct of the process that no one wants too close by. Lawmakers, on the other hand, are under no such illusions. For them it’s a given that attacking lobbying is a winner in an election year. But on K Street there remains a feeling that everything will work out. That may seem remarkably optimistic for those who earn their keep by dealing in political realities. If anyone should be versed in the minutiae of lobby reform, it’s Thomas Susman, a partner with Ropes & Gray and chairman of the ethics committee of the American League of Lobbyists. Susman, who co-edited The Lobbying Manual, a how-to guide for the profession, has studied most of the issues involved in the lobby reform debate. Zero tolerance for gifts? “Unnecessarily awkward,” he says. Requirements that members read bills in their entirety before voting on them? “Wouldn’t have been feasible in 1806,” he concludes. Despite his expertise and position with the league, Susman says he hasn’t been keeping up with the twists and turns of individual bills in Congress. Instead he, like many others, has shied away from the legislative end of the lobby reform fight, the very kind of brawl that lobbyists are normally paid well to take on. On one level, the fact that K Street isn’t actively involved in lobbying reform shouldn’t come as an enormous shock. Kenneth Gross, a partner at Skadden, Arps, Slate, Meagher & Flom and a lobbying ethics expert, calls the debate “about the most distasteful thing that Congress has to deal with.” But what explains lobbyists’ conspicuous absence? For many, it’s fear. “Anyone who tells you that they haven’t woken up at two in the morning and thought, Oh, my God, what if they really do this? is lying,” says Rich Gold, who heads Holland & Knight‘s lobby practice. Another lobbyist also cites the reason of mental well-being for ignoring the policy debate (though on the condition that his name not be printed). “I don’t look at the [lobby reform] bills. It’s depressing, frankly,” says the lobbyist, the head of a small but well-connected shop. “It’s taken the fun out of our jobs,” he adds, lamenting the reduced frequency of his trips to the MCI Center and other outings with staffers and lawmakers. While the head of the small shop isn’t actively tracking reform bills, that hasn’t stopped him from voicing discontent. He has circulated a memo critical of reform efforts among his contacts on the Hill. While he doesn’t take on any one bill, he makes no bones about how he sees the debate: “Congressional offices should NOT be required to keep a �lobby log’. . . Gifts should NOT be eliminated, and lobbyists should NOT have to report gifts given to Members of Congress and staff. . . Do NOT eliminate privately funded travel.” He concludes that “the urge for media acclaim and partisan advantage should be resisted at all costs.” But sending around the memo, which doesn’t even carry his name, is about as involved as he cares to get. And even if he had the desire to jump into the debate, he doubts how effective he could be. He says his and his colleagues’ lobbying skills wouldn’t translate to the reform issue. “I can read [my issues] well, but [lobby reform], this is something I’m not good at reading,” he says. “This is all politics.” Though smaller shops have largely ignored the reform debate, some executives at medium- and large-size firms have been following the action more closely. Few lobbyists are working lawmakers, but most firms have made at least a cursory analysis of how the reform proposals would affect the bottom line. The Ferguson Group, whose client base is made up of municipalities seeking earmarks, has assigned two lobbyists to track lobby- and earmark-reform legislation, though W. Roger Gwinn, the firm’s president, says any changes won’t radically affect his clients or business. Richard Armey, the former House majority leader who is now a lobbyist at DLA Piper Rudnick Gray Cary, says his firm has discussed the proposals at officewide meetings, but that the talks have veered more toward ethical discussions than policy debates. Patton Boggs held a meeting in late January on lobby reform and ethics. The firm has assigned three lobbyists to track legislation. Holland & Knight’s Gold has stayed tuned in to the debate and predicts that the ultimate outcome for lobbyists will be far less harsh than conventional wisdom holds. His reasoning: As the furor over Abramoff quiets down, so too will the cries for reform. Also, members and staffers have no desire to part with the perks of a system that has been generous to them. “I had an interview with a Senate chief of staff,” says Gold. “He said to his boss, �If any of this stuff happens, I’m out of here.’ “ But Skadden, Arps’ Gross is less sanguine and offers a warning to those lobbyists closing their eyes and hoping for the best: “I’ll be surprised if [Congress] does any of this [reform] with the scalpel,” he predicts. “It looks like they’ve got the sledgehammer out.”
Andy Metzger can be contacted at [email protected].

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