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Anna Palmer recently took your questions about our recent series, Pay to Play. A transcript of the chat follows. More information about this series appears at the bottom of the chat…
Anna Palmer: Hi, we hope you enjoyed the four-part “Pay to Play” series delving into money in politics. I’m here to take your questions.
Jamie, Silver Spring: I know you didn’t write the story on Mr. Oldaker, but it struck me how easily he seemed to move around in Washington, even working for a time in a Republican administration. Do you find that most of the people you talk to view themselves as partisan or simply as political professionals? Anna Palmer: I think lobbyists usually associate with one political party. The more someone works for one party the more associated their ties are with those Members or groups. However, once staffers move on to associations or lobby shops, especially bi-partisan operations like Quinn Gillespie & Associates or PodestaMattoon, they can expect firms to use lobbyists from both sides of the aisle to get business agendas passed on behalf of clients.
Katharine, D.C.: Anna, enjoyed your work. Listen, what do you think that these trade groups and companies expect when they give money to a PAC or a candidate? Access? Control? Legislation? Do they expect that candidate to be indebted to them for life? What’s the bottom line? Anna Palmer: Good question. I think political giving is a part of the process and law firms, lobby shops, and associations recognize that to get noticed in Washington they need to donate. But, just because a group gives $5,000 doesn’t mean that all of a sudden they are going to get legislation on their behalf passed. Money equals access. Giving to Congress means that your group or lobbyists will be able to bend the ear of the Congressman or staffer for that issue.
Antonio, Georgetown: Reading over your story on congressional hopefuls tapping into the money of D.C. lobbyists, my question concerns how money and fundraising somehow is connected to how a person does in the polls. Doesn’t it seem rather “cheap” in a way that a candidate in another state has to rely on funds from lobbyists in the Nation’s Capital in order to stay competitive in a congressional race. They can’t raise enough funds in the state they’re running in so they look outside of the constituency, it just seems wrong to me, your thoughts…. Anna Palmer: Money is a necessity to run a competitive political race. For most challengers, the majority of their funds come from in state. However, once a Member is elected to Congress they have a much larger pool of funds to draw from. Also, you have to remember that often the lobbyists who are donating represent companies or groups in that state, which are hoping to secure funds in Congress that will funnel back to the state. Or, if a group, like the National Wholesalers Association’s PAC gives money, they most likely are also running a large volunteer network in state.
Douglas, Capitol Hill: Anna, why don’t all DC law firms have lobby shops? Do they make a lot of money? Cheers… Anna Palmer: For years many law firms looked down on the influence business as not being “lawyerly” enough. However, that has largely changed as firms have seen the amount of money that lobbyists bring in. Even firms like Covington & Burling, which is often viewed as a white-shoe Washington firm, have invested heavily into lobbying. Also DC law firms use their legislative practices to get more regulatory legal work.
Hugo, Sterling, Va.: When Sonnenschein began considering in 1996 getting into the influence business, were there any law firms at the time they looked to for guidance on how to engage this process successfully? Are some of the other firms, Patton Boggs, Akin Gump, comfortable with being outspent by Sonnenschein in terms of PAC money? Anna Palmer: Sonnenschein really used the expertise of Elliott Portnoy and Michael McNamara to drive its lobbying practice. Both came from Arent Fox, a well-known D.C. Law firm and had experience in building up that firm’s lobbying presence. As to your second question, I think that each of the firms is really looking at trying to maximize the amount of funds they can raise from partners. However, one shop you mention, Patton Boggs an institution in lobbying, just recently started its own PAC. So, it’ll be interesting to see how it stacks up in the coming years.
Gary, D.C.: Anna, with the importance that is being placed on these midterm elections, are lobbyists and firms going “the extra mile” in the amount of funds and/or resources being given to candidates who are in tight races, especially incumbent Republicans? Anna Palmer: Lobbyists and lawyers are continuing to give money right up until the end of the election. While the number of fundraisers in DC definitely has dwindled over the past month as Members have been on the stump, PACs continue to give so that candidates can buy ad time. Besides funds, many lobbyists are on the ground in competitive races running get out the vote operations or helping the campaign in other ways.
Paul, Gaithersburg: If the Democrats take over both houses in Congress, will there finally be some real lobby reform legislation and changes to the system instead of lots of faux outrage with little to no action taken? Anna Palmer: I think conventional wisdom is that if Democrats take over both houses in Congress there is likely to be some movement on lobby reform. How extensive that reform is or what form it takes isn’t clear. I don’t think anyone believes Congress will take up lobby reform during the lame duck.
Larry, D.C.: Is there a greater emphasis placed on money in politics today, than in recent history? Anna Palmer: I think most lobbyists would say that each year there is more pressure to raise money, which has been more profound this year with both Republicans and Democrats fighting for control of Congress. Also, the increased reporting requirements that make campaigns report quarterly instead of semi-annually have also increased the pressure campaigns put on lobbyists to donate.
Eric, Alexandria: How do lobby shops feel about competition from law firms? Do law firms have advantages that lobby shops don’t have? If I’m a client, which one do I want? Anna Palmer: Certainly lobby shops are facing increased competition. But, the number of corporations and businesses using outside lobbyists is increasing so they don’t seem to be hurting. And, it’s important to note that most businesses hire multiple lobby and law firms to work on issues. Law firms certainly have the advantage in terms of more people to put on an issue and the ability to substantively look at issues as lawyers and cross-market their other practices. However, lobby shops might prove more nimble in working on issues and work primarily on a monthly retainer instead of lawyers hourly rates so lobby shops’ bills could be smaller.
Fred, Rockville: As always, a great job in your coverage… Where do you think Sonnenschein would be today as a firm if they hadn’t embraced the lobbying world? Anna Palmer: It’s hard to say, but I think they would still be struggling to get a sizable footprint in Washington. As the firm has incorporated more of their lobbyists in capital markets, using political intelligence for hedge funds, and other areas it is making lobbying one of the firm’s key practice areas.
Sean, Philadelphia: Anna, if Democrats win, will this system be cleaned up at all? Or is just a bunch a different lobbyists and groups that have the power?? Anna Palmer: I don’t think Congress is likely to tackle the overall money in politics issue. After the Supreme Court’s 1976 decision, the only issue that seems to be on the table is contribution limits, which McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Finance Act of 2002 effectively regulated.
Amy, Washington: Do you think the media overstates the influence of money in politics or does it generally not pay enough attention to it? Anna Palmer: I think it’s important to follow the trail of money and influence that it has over some members of Congress. Over the past year several Congressman including Rep. Ney (R-Ohio), Rep. Duke Cunningham (R-Calif.), and others have come under scrutiny by law enforcement and the press looking at how money was used to manipulate the system. In our four-part series, we tried to show how money enters the system from candidates running, law firms raising money, and a lobbyist who has made his living by advising candidates where to draw the line.
Jesse, Springfield, VA: If you are a lobbyist in a big lobby firm, are you expected to give a certain portion of your income away as contributions? Anna Palmer: Law firms can solicit their partners to contribute to their political action committees. However, they cannot force lobbyists to give money to the firms PAC or to candidates. Most lobbyists give money to members they worked for, are close to, or who their clients have interests in.
Anna Palmer: Thanks everyone for your great questions about our series. LegalTimes.com: And many thanks to Anna for taking the time to field all of your questions.
Editor’s Note: Legal Times retains editorial control over online chats and will choose questions relevant to the discussion topic.
Following a wave of lobbying scandals last year, Congress pledged to reform the money-driven culture of Washington politics. By all accounts, virtually nothing has changed. This summer Legal Times began looking into the role money continues to play inside the Beltway and beyond. In a four-part series, we delve into how Washington’s influence-peddling community does business and how the free flow of money in the nation’s capital has a significant impact on everything from the laws that are written to the people we put in office.Part 1, Oct. 9: The Jack Abramoff scandal was the biggest catalyst for lobby reform in years, and Congress reacted with predictable outrage and a slate of reforms. The result: zero legislation, an ever-powerful lobbying community, and a money chase that grows more intense each day.Part 2, Oct. 16: Even newcomers to political office know that a member of Congress can’t get far without the financial backing of D.C. lobbyists. Part 3, Oct. 23: Lobbyists often help members get into office and stay there. But that relationship goes two ways. Lobbyists’ campaign work helps them grow closer to the very members who can help their clients.Part 4, Oct. 30: Lobbying is a business in which you have to pay to play and newcomers have to work hard to catch up. In just a few years one law firm transformed itself from an unknown to an inside-the-Beltway government relations powerhouse.

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