Retiring lawmakers cause ripple effect throughout K Street

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A wave of retirements is causing a ripple effect throughout K Street, where firms use enduring relationships with members of the U.S. Congress as the basis of their business. The result is groups of firms are scrambling to rebrand, under threat of becoming irrelevant once politicians leave office.

More than two dozen retirements (so far) have many former Capitol Hill staffers, who foster relationships as a lobbyist calling card, striving to convince clients that they are more than just an association with high-profile legislators, reports Holly Yeager of the Washington Post.

For example, a move that affects tax lobbyists the most is the retirement of Montana Democrat Max Baucus, who left the chair of the Senate Finance Committee in February to become U.S. Ambassador to China.

Other outgoing chairs are making lobbyists feel the pinch, such as Sens. Carl Levin of the Senate Armed Services Committee, John D. Rockefeller IV of the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation Committee, Tom Harkin of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee; and Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, who chairs the House Armed Services Committee.

“What happens when your street cred is built upon your relationship with one particular member?” asked lobbyist recruiter Chris Jones during an interview with the Post. “Do you still have any street cred? That’s a big question.”

However, other former Washington D.C. staffers say that they were not hired as lobbyists just for access to a single member, but for their understanding of the legislative process and issues, Yeager writes.

“If you’ve hired somebody who has sold themselves on their knowledge of or access to an individual, and they haven’t over the years built any other relationships, they’re likely to be sooner or later taken off the payroll,” said Will Ris, who is in charge of the Washington division of American Airlines. “That’s why they were there.”

Ris keeps about a dozen K Street firms on retainer.

A majority of former congressional aides cannot begin lobbying until a year after leaving the Hill, and many take offense at the idea that ties to Congress can be easily converted into special consideration for clients.

The better lobbyists take the time to become familiar with different lawmakers, develop their practice to a wider selection of members, and work toward a deeper understanding of policy. It becomes a bulwark against times of transition.

Jones believes lobbyists should be able to thrive in times of change.

“If all of the sudden your old boss leaves, you’ve been working on those contacts with other people in Washington for so long you’re still going to have some relationships,” he said. “Your contacts aren’t going to completely dry up when the member leaves. They will decrease, certainly.”

After-Congress careers of departing lawmakers could also be a factor.

“If they leave town and retire peacefully, it won’t give former staffers as much cache,” Jones added. “But if they stay in the mix …  that will help.”

Phil Ammann is a St. Petersburg-based journalist and blogger. With more than three decades of writing, editing and management experience, Phil produced material for both print and online, in addition to founding HRNewsDaily.com. His broad range includes covering news, local government and culture reviews for Patch.com, technical articles and profiles for BetterRVing Magazine and advice columns for a metaphysical website, among others. Phil has served as a contributor and production manager for SaintPetersBlog since 2013. He lives in St. Pete with his wife, visual artist Margaret Juul and can be reached at phil@floridapolitics.com and on Twitter @PhilAmmann.