Top Democrats Rate Top Dollars

K Street Has Its Own Bull Market

Posted December 12, 2008 at 6:10pm

The nation’s job market is in peril, but one tiny sector of the economy is booming. Democratic staffers and Democrats already in the lobbying profession are finding that this is a season of lucrative job offers.

“There may not be a bull market on Wall Street, but there’s certainly a bull market for Democrats in Washington,” said Ivan Adler, a lobbyist headhunter with the McCormick Group Inc.

The price tags for Democrats, however, can vary widely, with top aides commanding packages worth $500,000 and up and those with minimal experience fielding offers from $120,000 to $200,000.

The highest prices go to Democrats who already have downtown experience and can bring with them a book of business or top aides on the plummest of committees — the House and Senate commerce, tax-writing and banking panels.

The hottest issue areas are health care, energy and taxes.

And Republicans with experience in those fields shouldn’t feel completely left out, either. “Good Republicans are still going to be much in demand,” said Nick Allard, who runs Patton Boggs’ lobby practice.

Democrats with those experiences, however, are the rare commodities that can actually command salaries in the half-million-dollar range, but they fuel expectations among Hill aides that lobbyists and headhunters say are often simply unrealistic.

For one owner of a mid-sized bipartisan lobby shop, it’s a simple case of supply and demand. “Demand exceeds supply at the moment,” he said. “The demand for Ds exists in the Obama administration, on the Hill and downtown.”

But when it comes to future lobbyists who can earn $500,000, this owner said, “there’s like four of them.”

“When people perceive a shortage, they assume prices are higher,” he added. “You make more money coming off as a D now than three years ago, but you’re concurrently dealing with an economy that’s grinding to halt.”

One example that is raising expectations, several sources said, is that of Jaime Harrison, who recently left a post as floor director and counsel to House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-S.C.). Harrison, who did not return a call seeking comment, took an offer at the Podesta Group that is rumored to be worth more than $400,000.

“It was at least that,” said one source, noting that Harrison had several things working in his favor: leadership experience, a legal degree and, of course, his party affiliation.

Another source noted that if Clyburn’s chief of staff, Yebbie Watkins, decided to depart, “he could get half a million easy.”

Not everyone is so desirable.

Already some operations, including the National Association of Manufacturers and the Securities Industry and Financial Markets Association, have laid off senior lobbyists, most of them Republicans.

“Since the election, the demand for Republicans has really dropped off a cliff,” said Jacqueline Arends at the executive search firm Spencer Stuart.

Denise Grant, managing director and head of the government affairs practice at another search firm, Russell Reynolds Associates, said recruiters are looking for Democrats who have private-sector as well as Congressional experience.

“I’ve got trade associations that are paying well, but it depends on the industry,” she said. “Traditionally, financial services has paid well, but obviously that sector is under tremendous pressure and under significant scrutiny on compensation, so that’s having an effect.

“But at the same time, they’re under such scrutiny that never before has it been more important for them to have a top-notch government affairs team,” Grant added.

Chiefs of staff to Democratic Members can command as much as $300,000 to $500,000, while mid-level aides who focus on specific issue areas are more likely to see a marketplace that puts their value at $200,000 to $300,000, according to numerous interviews with headhunters, job seekers and lobbyists.

“Given the current market dynamic for top-tier talent with Democratic credentials, those individuals are undoubtably garnering a significant premium on compensation,” said headhunter Nels Olson of Korn/Ferry International.

A staffer under 30 who has a few years of experience working on tax-writing issues for a Democratic Member is looking at offers in the range of $175,000 to $200,000.

“It might be difficult for more junior staffers who may in their heads be thinking, ‘This is a new era of Democratic dominance, so I can leave and get a high six-figure salary,’” said one Democratic lobbyist and former Hill staffer who has been fielding numerous unsolicited offers in recent weeks.

“The way the economy is, and in certain sectors, that’s just not the case,” he said.

This lobbyist added that based on recent offers he has received, law firms and lobby shops, as opposed to trade associations and corporations, are willing to pay the most. “For those people who are perceived as being able to leverage their relationships on the Hill and in the [incoming] administration, the market for those folks is as good as it’s ever been,” this lobbyist said.

Salaries range from $300,000 to $600,000, he said, but the structures of those deals vary, with some firms offering more in base pay while others offer more potential in bonuses for lobbyists who bring in business.

Some consulting shops might offer $300,000 base pay with the possibility of taking home 20 percent of each lobbying contract that the new hire brings in.

Some firms, in fact, prefer a lower base — with a higher bonus — as a hedge against a bad hire, because not all Congressional aides make good lobbyists.

“It’s really an unknown when you leave the Hill as to whether you’re going to like it, find it an environment that is in keeping with what you like doing,” said a senior Democratic lobbyist at a bipartisan firm.

And the perks for going in-house at corporations aren’t what they used to be.

“Being in-house at a company is still competitive, but what people were hoping in future upside like stock options, that has gone out the window to some degree,” one in-house lobbyist said.

Patton Boggs’ Allard said his shop is looking to hire Democrats.

“Demand is high, but it’s a tough economic time,” he said. “I don’t think it’s any harder to hire a Democrat than it was before.”

As for stepped-up salaries, Allard, a Democrat, quipped, “I’m trying to get my own salary increased, but I’m not having much success there.”