K Street Quietly Comes to Dingell’s Aid

Posted November 13, 2008 at 9:18am

With the gavel for the powerful House Energy and Commerce Committee hanging in the balance, Democratic lobbyists are rallying behind current Chairman John Dingell (Mich.), as he tries to fend off a well-publicized power grab for the job by Rep. Henry Waxman (Calif.).

While discussions for House leadership races are typically done at the Member level, several former Dingell staffers said that hasn’t stopped them from working the phones to put in a good word for the Capitol Hill denizen.

In particular, K Street has sought to convince members of the Blue Dog Coalition, the Congressional Black Caucus, and the New Democrats to back Dingell against Waxman, the chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

“Lobbyists are doing intelligence gathering, talking to lawmakers they are on a first-name relationship basis with,” said one lobbyist, who has made calls to drum up support for Dingell.

Still, lobbyists said their activity has been tempered by not wanting to appear too far out in front of Dingell’s Capitol Hill whip team.

There is also concern among lobbyists that Waxman could try to paint Dingell as being too close to downtown.

“For folks on K Street it’s just not wise to get too actively involved,” said the lobbyist.

The House Democratic Caucus is expected to vote in a secret ballot on the chairmanship next week.

Since he was first elected in 1955 to fill the seat of his father, Rep. John Dingell Sr. (D-Mich.), the younger Dingell has amassed a formidable K Street presence.

His network spans the health care, energy, manufacturing and telecom industry sectors.

Dingell has forged strong ties with former senior aides-turned-lobbyists, including John Orlando of CBS Corp., Ryan Modlin at the National Association of Manufacturers, Marda Robillard of Van Scoyoc Associates, and Alan Roth of US Telecom. He’s also close to Reid Stuntz of Hogan & Hartson and solo practitioner Michael Barrett.

Dingell’s Chief of Staff Michael Robbins is primarily running his whip operation. Robbins reached out to Dingell alumni and friends with a late-night e-mail last Thursday, acknowledging that many had offered “support and assistance.” The e-mail missive included talking points and press clips for them to use. Further, Robbins asked K Streeters to “gather intelligence” from Members and staff.

After receiving their marching orders, lobbyists said they have been quietly reaching out to lawmakers and helping staff strategize potential pickups in the chairmanship race to ensure that Dingell would continue to run the committee.

Notwithstanding the call for downtown’s help, Dingell spokeswoman Jodi Seth said her boss’s focus is on Capitol Hill.

“Chairman Dingell has long-standing relationships with lots of people in Washington who have called and offered their help, but Dingell sees this as an election among Members of Congress,” Seth said in an e-mail.

Waxman’s spokeswoman declined to comment about the gavel race.

For many it’s not just about loyalty to Dingell.

Should Waxman be successful in his attempt to oust Dingell, he would wield considerable power as the House gets ready to tee up climate change and health care reform. That, in turn, could force companies into a far more defensive lobbying posture since Waxman is likely to call for much stricter regulations against industry.

Although Waxman’s move to wrest control of the committee from Dingell appeared to catch the Michigan lawmaker by surprise, rumors have been swirling for weeks that Waxman might make a move for the enviable post.

Both Waxman and Dingell have long had financial support from industry as the No. 1 and No. 2 Democrats on the Energy and Commerce Committee.

Coming from the home state of the Big Three automakers, Dingell has received more than $625,000 over the past two decades from automakers, more money than all other Members of the House have received from the industry since 1989, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.

Waxman has also had generous contributions from industry, including insurance company Aflac, the American Hospital Association, and the American Medical Association, all of which have large stakes in the upcoming health care debate.

Both Members also have leadership political action committees, which can be used to curry favor with fellow Members. Since opening the Wolverine PAC in June, Dingell has spread the wealth to colleagues, contributing about $80,000 to moderate incumbents and challengers, according to CQ MoneyLine.

Waxman has long had a leadership PAC, founding LA PAC in the late 1970s. He has contributed about $238,000 to Democrats this cycle.

While walking softly is the norm downtown in leadership races, the National Mining Association is one industry group openly supporting Dingell’s retention of the chairmanship.

“It strikes us that Chairman Dingell is more likely coming from Detroit to have a sensitivity to the current economic plight of the country when he looks at the various serious issues before the committee than Mr. Waxman, who is from Beverly Hills,” NMA spokesman Luke Popovich said.

The Sportsmen’s and Animal Owners’ Voting Alliance has also come out in support of Dingell. In an e-mail blast to more than 22,000 members, SAOVA urged its grass-roots network to contact their Member of Congress about what they argue is an important voice of moderation.

“He’s a voice of moderation where the large California cabal is scary as hell,” said Bob Kane, chairman emeritus of SAOVA.

However, not every Dingell ally is getting into the thick of things. The auto industry, for one, has taken a backseat in the gavel race.

While K Street lobbyists say there is little doubt which lawmaker the industry supports, the Big Three automakers are focused on trying to secure a government bailout.