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NFIB Becomes a K St. Training Ground

If there was a graduate degree in lobbying, it might be called an NFIB.

In the past two decades, the National Federation of Independent Business has hired and trained dozens of junior Congressional aides to be lobbyists for Washington’s business community.

During that time, the NFIB has burnished a reputation as one of the best places on K Street for young lobbyists to cut their teeth in the business of influence.

“We always sold NFIB as a training ground,” said John Motley, who served as the association’s top lobbyist in the 1980s and 1990s before moving to the Food Marketing Institute.

The NFIB recruits 20-something Congressional aides into its lobbying operation by offering its employees opportunities that they might not get at other corporate offices.

“They get a tremendous amount of experience in a short amount of time that they couldn’t get elsewhere,” said Dan Danner, NFIB’s current top lobbyist. “The price that we pay is that people see them do well and they get hired away from us.”

NFIB alums include Nelson Litterst, a former White House lobbyist now with the C2 Group; Mark Isakowitz of Fierce & Isakowitz; Ralph Hellmann, a onetime House Republican leadership aide now with the Information Technology Industry Council; and David Rehr, the president of the National Beer Wholesalers Association. [IMGCAP(1)]

Alums in the public sector include Amy Jensen, who lobbies for the White House; Laura Pemberton, who works in Senate Majority Whip Mitch McConnell’s (R-Ky.) operation; and John Emling, who serves as chief of staff to Rep. Eric Cantor (R-Va.).

Despite their high profiles, each person is still under 40 years old.

“They don’t pay them a lot of money, but they work them really hard,” said Rehr, who has sought to implement NFIB’s model at his own shop. “A new lobbyist at NFIB has as much or more responsibility than someone who has worked five years somewhere else.”

New NFIB lobbyists are allowed — even encouraged — to be quoted in the press and empowered to make commitments for the association.

“If they are here for any length of time, most people can testify on the Hill,” Danner said. “That’s pretty heady stuff.”

The large amount of responsibility is a big draw for NFIB recruits, who turn down much higher paying offers at other firms.

Motley created the strategy in the 1980s, when he oversaw the association’s Congressional lobbying operation.

“We didn’t have hundreds of thousands of dollars to throw at seasoned staff,” he said. As a result, NFIB concentrated on hiring a larger group of young and aggressive lobbyists.

“They are not yet married, they don’t have kids, they don’t have a lot of time demands on them — so they can spend a lot of time on the Hill,” he said.

When Danner took over for Motley in the mid-1990s, Danner retained his predecessor’s approach. He also put a bit of his own, more relaxed, imprint on the lobbying shop.

In the halls of NFIB’s offices, visitors are just as likely to run into a friendly putting competition as a debate over dividend tax cuts. “Many important decisions are made over here with putter in hand,” said one NFIB lobbyist.

Danner also keeps close tabs on his alums. Earlier this month, for example, Danner sponsored his Fifth Annual Masters’ Week Putting Contest complete with overturned paper plates as sand traps.

“Once you are in the NFIB family, you are always in the NFIB family,” said Litterst, who worked for the NFIB before a two-year stint as a White House lobbyist.

The friendly atmosphere extends to the busier times of the year.

When NFIB lobbyist Dena Battle testified before Congress for the first time earlier this year, Danner showed up at the hearing with several NFIB lobbyists to cheer her on.

Back at the office, Danner set up balloons at her desk and took her out to lunch by way of congratulations.

“The fact that people have done so well here shows that you know you have an opportunity to move up,” Battle said. “It is seen as a real stepping stone. I don’t see myself leaving anytime soon — but I don’t expect to be here in 10 years.”

Former lobbyists also say they are lured by the issues that NFIB represents.

“It’s easy to work for small business because everyone likes small business,” said Hellmann. “It’s not like you are working for evil big business.”

Even so, with the low pay scale, it is usually not long before NFIB’s lobbyists get lured away by the draw of a pricier salary or more glamour.

Danner estimates that most of his lobbyists stay less than four years.

“The price that we pay is that most of them don’t stay that long,” he said.

Still, having former lobbyists all over town doesn’t hurt.

“Lobbying is still a people business,” said Danner. “It doesn’t mean that you are going to get everything you want. But it always helps to know people. You can at least get a phone call returned or find out what is going on,” said Danner, before departing for lunch with Jensen, a former NFIB lobbyist now working in the White House legislative affairs office.

“It always helps to have friends,” he concluded. “There is no question that it helps.”

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