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We’re all waiting for Tommy. The drinks have been poured — vodka twist with a lemon; vodka rocks, no garnish; gin and tonic; and even two Cokes (it is only 5 on a Tuesday night, after all). But nevertheless, the collars have been loosened, and the tales are already being told — or, as the case may be here, spun. In one of the last smoke-ridden bars in Washington sit three old-school Democratic lobbyists, a Republican, and a reporter, together at the fittingly named Shelly’s Back Room, ready to cleave a little fact from fiction in the overheated world of the influence business. But perhaps the one who looms largest of all, Thomas Boggs Jr., has yet to arrive. And nothing happens without Tommy Boggs. (Just don’t call him Tommy to his face.) These established Washington insiders, normally press-wary, have agreed to a wide-ranging conversation on succeeding in the lobbying business in the post-Abramoff landscape, one more recently unsettled by the Democratic takeover of Congress. For once, saying someone has seen it all isn’t a clich�. Not only have they seen it all, but they can finally talk about it without looking over their shoulder. And times have changed since the late 1960s, when modern-day lobbying started — they can’t hand over envelopes of cash on the House floor, and the old-boys network isn’t running the show any longer. But this reunion won’t be complete without the kingpin. Boggs is the guy who has been known to twist arms, make deals, and size up the competition while building one of the largest political empires on K Street — Patton Boggs. Regardless, we begin without him. The first topic springs directly from the Abramoff scandal. What’s more important, connections or expertise? After all, Abramoff was the ultimate all-access lobbyist, who traded his Rolodex like it was on the stock exchange. “I was told recently by one of my clients that there are three kinds of Democratic lobbyists: guys who are old and know a lot of people and are not trying to make new friends and are willing to liquidate their assets and go ask these members to do things — ” begins J. Steven Hart, the lone Republican at the table, who heads Williams & Jensen. “I’m on the program,” jokes Ronald Platt, head of government relations at Buchanan Ingersoll & Rooney. Coincidentally, he’s the only one at the table smoking in this cigar bar. “Then you have the midrange younger guys, who are smart, and their idea is to go get focus groups, try to find out what the message or the business interest is,” Hart continues. “And then there is the bottom group, or the worst third . . . those who won’t lobby for their clients because they don’t believe in them.” “And they want to get paid, anyway,” cracks Platt. Twenty minutes into the discussion, Boggs finally walks through the door. The swagger, however, isn’t quite there. He’s using a cane while recovering from major back surgery, showing that even though we’re waiting for him, time isn’t. Boggs tosses his camel overcoat and doles out the usual niceties. Soon he has a Scotch in hand and the conversation can begin anew. “We’re talking about access versus planning, all that sort of stuff,” says Lawrence O’Brien III, bringing Boggs up to speed. “Stevie just made the point that there’s nothing necessarily wrong with access.” “I hope not,” Boggs deadpans. TOPIC A: GETTING IN O’Brien can’t resist needling Hart. “How does that work, Steve? I’d love to adopt [the strategic planner] model, but I’ve never been able to figure it out,” he says, leaning back in his chair. O’Brien represents clients across the gamut, from Eli Lilly to the National Association of Homebuilders, as the head of lobbying boutique OB-C Group. He’s steeped in politics, growing up inside the Beltway with his father, Lawrence, a Democratic National Committee chairman during the late �60s. O’Brien already knows the answer: The “strategic model,” the focus-group feedback, and the 100-page memos are for the junior suits, the ones back at the office. For these guys, the strategy is a little simpler: When the client calls, get it done. They’ve lived their lives here, formed networks that cross, crisscross, and then cross again. Besides Boggs and O’Brien, at the table are tobacco lobbyist Thomas Quinn of Venable, gambling and tax lobbyist Platt, and entertainment and business lobbyist Hart. And they make it clear that in Washington, access isn’t a dirty word. It’s the only word. “Somebody in our marketing group, a very bright young lady, suggested that, because I’m 65, had I thought about just doing strategic planning,” says Platt, whose black cowboy boots serve as a shout-out to his home state of Oklahoma. “And I said, �Are you serious? You think people are really going to hire me to do that?’ “ Adds Quinn in his thick New England accent, “I sell myself as a strategic planner only, but unfortunately, the clients want some results now and then.” “Yeah, hot air will only get you so far. But you can’t have a tactic without a strategy. I mean, really, I think everybody does both,” says O’Brien. “Some people do stop at the advocacy line. . . . It’s never been our operating style.” Hart takes an even stronger stand. “I don’t think access is necessarily a bad thing. You have to understand, members’ time is very valuable, and they can only talk to so many people,” he says. “You can get a lot done through their staff,” he concedes. “But I would say, at a certain age you talk to fewer and fewer staff.” “They keep getting younger and younger,” jokes Platt as the group cracks up. “Steve, you other guys too, part of this is, if you’ve been doing this for a long time it probably means that some of those members trust what you’re saying,” says Platt. “Part of what you bring to access is, they actually have some confidence you’re not blowing hot air.” TOPIC B: THE BLUE WAVE Despite the banter, most of these lobbyists are coming off a rough 12 years. Out of power for the first time in 40 years, they faced a ruthless opponent, dubbed “the Hammer” for enforcing a discipline system that made it virtually impossible for Democratic lobbyists to play a role in the House. And the aura of the phenomenon known as the K Street Project still permeates the discussion of life in the political minority. Spearheaded by Grover Norquist and former Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas), the K Street Project was an attempt to pressure companies and trade associations to hire Republicans — and to reward loyal GOP lobbyists with access to influential officials. “Nobody wants to buy this, but the K Street Project was fiction. I was part of the original K Street Project when there were four or five of us,” says Hart. “Half of this is, the McCurdy situation got blown out of proportion. It gave a perception of the K Street Project that wasn’t really accurate.” But Hart’s not getting off that easy. Quinn counters that only two Democrats were hired by a major corporation or trade association after DeLay pressured the Electronics Industry Association to not hire former Rep. Dave McCurdy (D-Okla.) to head the organization. DeLay was formally admonished by the House Ethics Committee in 1998. He was pushing for former Republican Rep. Bill Paxton (N.Y.) to get the job. Quinn says only former Democratic House staffer Timothy Keating for Honeywell and former Rep. Dan Glickman (D-Kan.) for the Motion Picture Association of America were tapped to head up Washington offices post-McCurdy. And, even the MPAA took heat for replacing longtime head Jack Valenti with a Democrat. And the K Street Project had to do with more than just what happened downtown, Quinn insists: “Subcommittee chairmen, full committee chairmen, getting their jobs not on seniority but on how much money they could raise to perpetuate the system.” “That wasn’t the K Street Project,” rebuts Hart. “It was all tied together,” replies Quinn. The impact of Republicans’ control on Democratic lobbyists went straight to the bone. Except for their rare dealings with a few GOP lawmakers, lobbyists say, the practically parliamentary rule in the House rendered them useless. “The last 12 years, personally, I didn’t go to the House besides maybe a meeting or two a year with guys who were old friends,” says Platt. Hart then asks the obvious follow-up. “Is that going to happen to us, by the way?” he says. “We’re working on it,” replies Platt. But then Boggs weighs in with the voice of reason. “Most young people who work in corporate America tend to be Republican. It’s not unusual to have Republicans in those jobs. What was unusual was, people from the Hill ended up [leaving Washington] after Republicans were in control,” says Boggs. “For 12 years, the Republican leadership in the House tried to operate the place as a parliamentary system,” says Platt. “There’s no way in hell the Democrats are going to do that.” And the group has to look no further than the recently passed minimum-wage bill as evidence. The bill included business tax breaks worth $1.8 billion over 10 years, which Republican lawmakers pushed for. Still, the lobbyists contend that the difference between Republican power in the 1990s and Democrats’ hold on Congress before that was, as Boggs says, “the leadership didn’t control the membership like the leadership controlled the membership” when DeLay was in power. “You had, on most issues, coalitions of Democrats and Republicans. To get a majority, you needed as many Republican lobbyists as Democrat lobbyists to get something passed in the House,” says Boggs. “That changed dramatically with the discipline system, and I think he’s right. How long Nancy [Pelosi] and Steny [Hoyer] can do that is very questionable.” TOPIC C: THINGS HAVE CHANGED Still, the lobbyists feel like they are finally back in the game with the Democrats’ sweep. But even this environment contrasts starkly with the way power brokers flexed their muscles when Boggs got into the business. “If you really go back to the late �60s and early �70s, most of the lobbying was done by a handful of people, because a handful of people ran the government,” says Boggs. At that time, lobbying was primarily a function of changing the tax code, because companies understood it was cheaper to lobby than it was to litigate. K Street certainly was a lot less crowded then, with a little more than 60 lobbyists working the halls of Congress. Today, there are more than 30,000 lobbyists. “Prior to 1980, if the government said it, they were right. Now the government doesn’t know crap. We can find out the facts and information a lot better than the government,” Boggs says. But the changes, even post-Abramoff, don’t seem to worry these guys. For the most part, they’ll be grandfathered in under the expected ban, because their personal relationships with lawmakers and staff began long ago. Money is still the currency that gets things done, and they have plenty of clients and cash in the bank to dole out to lawmakers. The ever-growing campaign war chests that have quadrupled mean big business for lobbyists. And eliminating soft money put lobbyists back in the game, Boggs contends. These guys are the ones who have the connections to bundle donations instead of companies dumping hundreds of thousands into races. “Money is where it’s at, and it’s still there,” says Quinn. “You went from wholesale fund raising back to retail fund raising,” says Boggs. “I have this long argument with Fred Wertheimer about this. I told him, �All you are doing is putting us back in power.’ “ But they agree on this: Though they’ll escape the more Draconian efforts at reform, the younger lobbyists and those who will come to the profession from the Hill won’t be as fortunate. The two-year ban on lobbying after moving to K Street, they agree, will be a killer. “Two years, however talented a person might be, we really couldn’t take a person and say, �OK, go in the icebox for two years,’ ” says O’Brien of his eight-person shop. And even if staffers can get off the Hill and into the game, the intimate relationships the old guard spent years building and now take for granted could become a thing of the past. Gift-ban rules always have an exception for long-standing friendships. “These guys [around the table] know a lot of members,” Hart says. “The younger [lobbyists] coming up behind them will have a hard time developing contacts.” They see former members as being in a better situation. “You don’t really hire members to lobby; we hire members because they think they have pretty good relationships,” says Boggs. “The two-year ban would not have much effect on a member, whereas a staff person . . . whereas a health-care expert off the Finance Committee, it kind of screws that person because they can’t use their expertise.” “We’ve all hired former congressmen, and most of them haven’t been very good,” jokes Quinn. It’s getting late. Not go-to-bed late, but the clock is ticking. There’s still business to be done tonight, and no money is being made while the lobbyists sit and drink and stare at each other. Quinn’s already missed one event for the night, and Hart’s late for a fund-raiser. O’Brien and Hart are off. Boggs gets up to go, more slowly than the rest. But somewhere in there, the swagger shows itself. “Good to see you, Tommy,” says Quinn. “You’re looking well, my boy.”
Anna Palmer can be contacted at [email protected].

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