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“The policy world is rife with companies saying they’re going to do X, Y, and Z and then not doing it. A lot of times it’s more economical to pay the fine.” The words of some anti-business crusader? Hardly. It’s lobbyist Alfred Mottur providing a dose of Washington reality at a lunch with the next generation of business leaders at Georgetown University’s Robert Emmett McDonough School of Business. Listening intently were a group of ambitious Georgetown MBA students, who have signed up to learn the real business in Washington, both in the classroom and, eventually, they hope, in the smoke-filled bars and restaurants where deals are often cut. Even though the business lobby spends more than $2 billion annually pushing its agenda with lawmakers in Congress, there remains a sizable disconnect between the corporate culture of spreadsheets and cash flow and the political mores of Washington. Businesses have proved adept at racking up legislative victories, but the Washington savvy that secures these rewards remains a comparatively rare commodity in the corporate world. “It’s negligent not to teach these things,” says Michael Levy, a Georgetown professor and a lobbyist for Brownstein, Hyatt & Farber. His class on business and public policy is mandatory for all first-year MBA students. For many it is their first exposure to the nexus between Washington and the corporate universe. Levy is quick to note that his course isn’t a lesson in how to lobby per se, but rather focuses on how Washington can wreak havoc or add riches to a company’s bottom line. A STUDY IN POWER A session earlier this month illustrated his point. In a highly technical case study, Levy led students through a trade dispute involving the Eastman Kodak Co.’s attempt to expand into the Japanese market in the late 1980s. Levy’s focus wasn’t on the politics surrounding the move, or even its specific circumstances, but rather on how Kodak’s missteps in planning and strategy with various government agencies torpedoed its efforts. The clear lesson Levy wants to impart to students is that Washington isn’t only about laws and regulations but can be a battleground upon which the fates of businesses are decided. The students seem to be soaking up the lessons. Al Ribeiro is one who, before heading back to school, worked on Republican campaigns, including President George W. Bush’s 2004 Pennsylvania operation. He says approaching Washington from a business point of view has changed his perspective of D.C. culture. “Congress gives [companies] another playing field to go against each other. It’s interesting to see how it fits in with strategic management,” Ribeiro says. Tommy Barletta, another student taking the class, says it has taught him how to bridge the knowledge gap between Wall Street and K Street. He says he can now “sit down with the head of a Washington office to explain what [something] means on a balance sheet. [Students] in the program have an appreciation for this.” Barletta tends to sound more like a polished Washington spinmeister than a starry-eyed student, and there’s a good reason: Before heading to Georgetown, he was press secretary for former Rep. Calvin Dooley (D-Calif.). In fact, Barletta isn’t the only message manager in the class. Ian Simpson, who along with Barletta and Ribeiro founded a group at Georgetown dedicated to forging ties between business students and lobbyists, staffers, and other behind-the-scenes Washington movers, was a spokesman for the Israeli Embassy in Washington from 1996 to 1998. Currently, Levy’s course on business and public policy is the only class on business-government relations offered at Georgetown, but George Daly, the dean of the business school, says he’s committed to changing that and will likely add more courses on the subject next year. Simpson agrees that could be helpful, but he doesn’t view simply adding more classes as the key to enlightenment about — or success in — the murky reality of Washington’s power game. “The culture of D.C. is as important as learning the regulations,” says Simpson. “We started Capital Connections,” he says, referring to the group he co-founded, “to augment the business side with a public policy scene.” The group is just getting off the ground, but its goals are lofty. Its first event, a panel discussion of lobbyists, drew about 100 students last month. Simpson is also adept at another Washington cultural phenomenon: a penchant for secrecy. When asked who spoke at the panel, he wrote in an e-mail that it “was a �closed-door’ discussion” and he couldn’t give the lobbyists’ names. But the group hasn’t mastered another Washington art — namely, message coordination. When asked, Ribeiro volunteered a list of the participants, who included lobbyists William Hensley from Bayer CropScience and Carol Wilner from AT&T. Ribeiro stresses that panel discussions and similar academic exercises aren’t the group’s sole focus; members also concentrate on Washington’s true deal-making arena — the cocktail circuit. “We’re trying to organize happy hours on Capitol Hill with [House and Senate] staff, and we’re talking to a couple different members of Congress to host us on the Hill. It would be great if we could forge connections between people who are now in business school and staffers.” Right now that’s still in the planning stages, and it’s clear some students need a few more lessons in the geography of power politics in Washington. At an organizational meeting earlier this month, Simpson solicited suggestions for restaurants where they could hold their get-togethers. “It might be good to do something at Nathan’s,” one student offered, recommending a well-lit, popular Georgetown hangout two dozen blocks away from the darkened downtown steak joints inhabited by the K Street crowd. And there seems to be a disparity in political savvy between students in the Capital Connections club and those in the MBA program as a whole. “There are certainly people who come from D.C. and have a D.C. background, and there are people for whom it’s not very interesting,” says Simpson. Julia Timofeyeva, a student who in her previous marketing job had little exposure to Washington’s political apparatus, says her perception of the reality of politics has changed since she entered the program. One lesson she has learned: “There’s this whole other machine that makes legislation. The legislators don’t make this stuff on their own. And if you’re a business, why on earth wouldn’t you want to be a part of that process?” she asks. Without missing a beat, she shifts into PR mode: “Using legal activities, I have to add.”
Andy Metzger can be contacted at [email protected].

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