In a windowless room on Capitol Hill, lobbyist Ilisa Halpern Paul had work to do. Among her goals: Secure $20 million for a client’s pet cause. A few minutes after the scheduled meeting time of 9:15 a.m., Kara Webster, a recent hire for Representative Jim Sensenbrenner (R-Wis.), whisked Paul and two representatives of her client, the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance, into a cramped beige room in the congressman’s office in the Rayburn House Office Building.
Paul, and Jerry and Phyllis Robison of Menomonee Falls, Wis., didn’t get to meet with Sensenbrenner about the $20 million Defense Department Ovarian Cancer Research Program allocation they want him to support. Instead, they spoke with Webster for about 20 minutes and passed a packet of papers and a business card to her.
It wasn’t a made-for-Hollywood lobbying experience. Day-to-day lobbying in Washington rarely is. “It’s not in some lavish room where people are having fancy drinks and fancy meals,” said Paul, who leads the lobbying and advocacy team at Drinker Biddle & Reath. “It really is very down to earth.”
During July and August, The National Law Journal met several times with and trailed members of Drinker’s dozen-person lobbying and advocacy team as they set about their daily business on Capitol Hill and in their K Street office.
Drinker lobbied for more than 50 organizations during the first three quarters of this year, pulling in $3.9 million, according to congressional records. For its lobbying work in 2011, the firm received $5 million, $2.8 million shy of making the Influence 50, The National Law Journal’s annual survey of the 50 top-earning lobbying practices in Washington. (That $5 million includes revenues from a robust Indian tribal governments lobbying practice, which is separate from Paul’s team.)
Specializing in the health care industry, the shop draws more than half of its clients from that sector. Among the firm’s big-name accounts are Advocate Health Care and the American Dental Association. But the firm also represents several lesser-known groups, including the American Society of Tropical Medicine and Hygiene and the Ovarian Cancer National Alliance, the leading advocacy group for women with ovarian cancer that’s anxious to raise awareness about the disease and gain federal research funding to help fight it.
MAKING IT REAL
Part of Paul’s strategy is to enlist citizen-lobbyists, who often bring dramatic real-life stories to the table. But they need coaching.
As she took the microphone the night before Ovarian Cancer National Alliance Hill Day, Paul looked at ease. It wasn’t the first time she had delivered the speech and an accompanying PowerPoint presentation, “Effective Advocacy: Making Your Capitol Hill Visit Fun and Successful,” which she prepared for the dozens of alliance members gathered at the Hyatt Regency Washington on Capitol Hill.
Paul told the group’s members that their first priority is to make a personal connection with the congressional staffers they meet. The lobbyist said the members should use details about who they are and where they’re from to get the conversation going. Also, ask the staffers if they know anyone with ovarian cancer, she said. “Connect with them before you get all the way down to business,” she said.
In a slide titled, “What Do You Want?” Paul laid out the requests she would help the members make at their Hill meetings: $20 million for the Defense Department Ovarian Cancer Research Program; recognition of Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month; and support for the Cancer Drug Coverage Parity Act, which would require health plans to provide coverage for oral anticancer drugs at the same cost as their intravenously administered or injected counterparts.
Paul told the members to explain why they’re in Washington and share their experiences with ovarian cancer — and not to worry about getting emotional, should that happen.
“If you cry…it’s OK,” Paul said. “Please, don’t be embarrassed.” She added: “It makes it more real for them.”
Before leaving the meetings, members should make sure to find out when it would be good to follow up with staffers and how to reach them, Paul said. “The difference between a good meeting and a good outcome is follow-up,” she said.
But lobbying trips don’t always go as planned. Paul warned the group’s members that staffers might cancel their meetings, cut them short, arrive late, show little interest, or even pass out. Citizen-lobbyists have a powerful weapon, however. They can vote unsupportive members of Congress out of office. “November is job review time,” she said.
Paul, who is not an attorney, came in 2004 to Gardner Carton & Douglas, which Drinker acquired in 2006. She previously worked at Arent Fox, the American Cancer Society and with Senator Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.), among other places.
Paul said she not only understands the pressures put on a congressional staffer but also the stresses of health care organizations. “I think one of the things that is important in influencing the public policy process is to be able to put yourself in the other person’s shoes,” Paul said.
Cara Tenenbaum, Ovarian Cancer National Alliance vice president for policy and external affairs, said Paul has a “good grasp of the big picture” of what is happening in Washington. Tenenbaum’s group became a paid client of Paul’s in 2005. Drinker, the only firm that lobbies for the alliance, has received $126,000 from the group since Drinker acquired Gardner, according to congressional records. This year, the firm’s lobbying efforts are on track to bring in $40,000 from the group.
The centerpiece of Drinker’s work for the alliance is the Hill Day, which Paul said she and Hilary Hansen, a senior government-relations manager at the firm, organize annually. But Paul, government-relations director James Twaddell IV and others at the firm are connecting with members of Congress and their staffers on other days, too. Their focus is on members who serve on the congressional appropriations committees and on panels that have jurisdiction over health care programs, Paul said. Drinker lobbyists also have had meetings at the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s National Center for Chronic Disease Prevention and Health Promotion, and at the U.S. Office of Management and Budget.
Although meetings are a key part of Drinker’s lobbying work for the alliance, they aren’t the only tool the firm uses to get the attention of policymakers. She and other lobbyists have also written issue briefs, congressional correspondence and letters to federal agencies, Paul said.
Paul’s connection to the issue of ovarian cancer isn’t just professional. Her mother’s cousin, the woman who introduced her parents, died of ovarian cancer more than two decades ago. “[M]y family has been touched personally by this devastating disease,” she said.
During a team meeting in August, Drinker’s lobbyists discussed fundraising over brownies and fruit at the firm’s office overlooking McPherson Square in downtown Washington.
Like many D.C. lobby shops, Drinker is active in campaign fundraising. Through its political action committee, Drinker donated nearly $95,000 to federal candidates during the 2012 election cycle, according to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics. Democrats received 56 percent of the money raised. With $6,310 in Drinker donations, Senator Robert Menendez (D-N.J.) is the biggest recipient of the firm’s PAC funds. Representative Robert Andrews (D-N.J.) comes in second at $6,000, followed by Representative Don Young (R-Alaska) with $5,000.
“We like to support members of Congress whose priorities are aligned with ours,” said Paul. “And it is an opportunity for us to host those members with whom we have shared goals and whose views are in alignment with ours.”
Some of those donations have gone to members of Congress the firm is targeting in its efforts to garner support for ovarian cancer research. Sensenbrenner received campaign money from the Drinker PAC, for example, pulling in $2,000 from the firm during this election cycle. But he hasn’t acted on all of the ovarian cancer issues as Drinker had hoped.
The congressman isn’t a co-sponsor of either the resolution for Ovarian Cancer Awareness Month in September or the Cancer Drug Coverage Parity Act. Both of the measures remain in committee. He did, however, vote in favor of the $606 billion fiscal 2013 Defense appropriations bill that passed the House of Representatives in July. The bill included $20 million for ovarian cancer research. (The Senate’s version of the spending measure has $10 million for the program.)
Amanda Infield, a Sensenbrenner spokeswoman, declined to comment on why the congressman didn’t co-sponsor the awareness-month resolution. As for the cancer drug bill, Sensenbrenner is weighing the need for the legislation, she wrote in an email. “The congressman evaluates each piece of legislation and funding request with the information from groups and associations, input from his policy staff, and action on the state level,” Infield wrote. Almost two dozen states have approved cancer drug parity bills, taking the lead on the cancer drug parity effort, she said.
Although Paul didn’t lock up Sensenbrenner’s support, his office wasn’t her only stop on Capitol Hill in July to sell the issues important to the ovarian cancer alliance. She had a meeting in the Longworth House Office Building lined up with Representative Sam Farr’s (D-Calif.) chief of staff, Rochelle Dornatt, whom she’s known for about a decade.
Paul and alliance representatives spent about 12 minutes in a sunny room filled with photos of Farr, making their pitch for the $20 million ovarian cancer research appropriation, cancer drug bill and awareness month resolution.
But Farr didn’t need much convincing. The congressman is a supporter of the cancer drug bill and the awareness month resolution. He also signed onto a letter in May calling on the House Appropriations defense subcommittee to allocate $20 million for ovarian cancer research. The House’s Defense spending bill, however, didn’t pass with his support or the backing of 78 other Democrats. Eleven Republicans also voted against the measure.
Paul’s work on ovarian cancer issues continued as Congress returned for its lame duck session. She said she won’t be discouraged if she doesn’t get all of the alliance’s goals accomplished this year. There’s always the next Congress.
“I like to see it as the glass half-full,” Paul said.
Andrew Ramonas can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.