Lobbyists in on 'super' secrets
By ANNA PALMER | 10/3/11 4:47 AM EDT
Want the inside scoop on the supercommittee? Ask a lobbyist.
Reporters and government watchdog groups are up in arms over the secrecy surrounding the committee, tasked with cutting at least $1.2 trillion from the nation’s deficit, which has met more frequently in secret than publicly and has rejected calls to disclose its donors and post its documents online.
But some of Washington’s highest-paid lobbyists aren’t sweating it.
K Streeters with deep ties to supercommittee members and congressional leadership say senior staffers have given them readouts from closed-door committee meetings. For example, senior aides to Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) and Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.), who is on the panel, met with several Republican lobbyists on Thursday and among the topics discussed was the prospect for a grand deal. Two days earlier, Kyl and the rest of the committee answered no questions as they brushed past a gaggle of reporters who had waited outside the private, six-hour meeting.
The Thursday meeting with lobbyists isn’t an isolated case. Democratic and Republican lobbyists say they continue to get corporate clients with interests before the committee face time with members and staff.
In this type of high-stakes environment, the K Street power set is at its best — offering clients in the pharmaceutical, defense and other industries, with potentially hundreds of millions of dollars on the line, a shot at staying out of the committee’s line of fire. It also confirms that these so-called access lobbyists, who charge retainers of $30,000 to $50,000 a month, still have plenty of political currency, despite familiar calls for reform and greater transparency that flared in the past election.
Public Citizen’s Craig Holman points out that the lawmakers know many of these lobbyists personally. The Washington Post recently reported that 100 former staffers for members of the committee are now registered to lobby on issues before the committee.
“You know full well there is all kinds of influence peddling going on behind the scenes,” Holman said.
Holman also said the supercommittee has not been interested in any suggestions from good government groups about opening up the process.
“As a result, it comes as no surprise the supercommittee is operating in secrecy, and we don’t know who is pulling the chains,” he said.
The office of panel co-chairman Jeb Hensarling (R-Texas) deferred to House Speaker John Boehner (R-Ohio) for comment. Boehner spokesman Michael Steel said the panel isn’t operating outside of the norm.
“The joint select committee functions under the same rules as any other committee. All hearings are public,” Steel said in a statement.
A spokesman for Washington Sen. Patty Murray, the Democratic co-chairwoman of the panel, declined to comment beyond saying that Murray “is focused on keeping negotiations moving toward a bipartisan and balanced plan.”
Further, her spokesman, Matt McAlvanah, said in a statement, “Committee members have opened their offices to constituents, watchdog groups and all those who would like to have their viewpoint heard.”
Lobbyists say dealing with the supercommittee has been tougher than their usual work. Lawmakers and staff are skittish about publicly revealing what is going on during the closed-door sessions, and no one wants to be caught leaking confidential information to special interests.
Republican strategist Ron Bonjean said the “kabuki dance” between supercommittee members and downtown has just begun.
“Information is slowly coming out, but there hasn’t been a lot of progress,” Bonjean said.
The intense press coverage on supercommittee members’ fundraising has also contributed to the clampdown.
Several of the panel’s lawmakers have moved to slow or shut off the spigot while serving on the committee.
GOP Reps. Fred Upton and Dave Camp of Michigan, and Massachusetts Democratic Sen. John Kerry are swearing off new fundraisers while they attempt to slash the deficit. Sen. Rob Portman (R-Ohio) has also canceled some fundraisers. But most members are actively fundraising.
And even members who are continuing to fundraise have tried to shutdown discussions about what the panel is reviewing during fundraising events, according to one Republican lobbyist.
“They are a little more sensitive because of the narrative that they are on the take,” the Democratic lobbyist said of lawmakers trying to keep lobbyists at arm’s length when they are in the public eye.
Sen. Max Baucus (D-Mont.) told POLITICO that he is meeting only with Montanans while he’s on the panel. “I think it is important to reduce meetings. There are frankly a lot of people in Montana that I meet with, and I still meet with them. They are my people,” Baucus said in late September.
Despite the move to reduce the information flow, lobbyists say they aren’t worried about getting access when they need it most.
So far, details have been scant largely because the deficit-slashing panel is just beginning its work. There is also little to report, they argue, because the lawmakers are finding it hard to reach a consensus about how to move forward on even broader issues like revenues, which were discussed Tuesday, much less specific programs.
“There’s an obsession with intelligence gathering — whether it’s right or wrong — that’s what clients want,” the Democratic lobbyist said.
The panel’s lumbering progress has given contract lobbyists plenty of time to strategize about the best way for clients to approach its members. The consensus among many corporate and contract lobbyists is that the panel will not come up with a grand bargain that takes on major issues like overhauling Medicare or comprehensive corporate tax reform.
Still, nobody — especially corporate America — wants to be caught unprepared.
“Some people have more at stake,” Democratic lobbyist Tony Podesta said. “If the Gang of Six and the Bowles-Simpson report all suggested a certain policy that’s adverse to your interest, I wouldn’t sit around and wait and see what the first draft is.”
Other groups representing a large swath of industries are in almost analysis paralysis. “Their interests are so massive, and they don’t know where it’s going to go,” one Democratic lobbyist said.
The majority of companies fall into three categories — those keeping a watchful eye on the panel to make sure they don’t come up in the discussion; those working overtime to either scuttle a deal because the automatic cuts would be better for them; or those like GE that are regularly criticized by lawmakers for tax breaks.
Regardless of its camp, most big companies are going in armed, thanks to K Street.
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