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If It’s Not Health, No One Cares

The worst-kept secret on K Street these days may just be how little work there is for lobbyists who aren’t doing health care reform.

Most K Streeters won’t cop, at least publicly, to enjoying extended lunches and cutting out early to hit the golf course, but that’s the guilty pleasure that many non-health-care consultants and lobbyists have been facing this fall.

While influence peddlers aren’t exactly twiddling their thumbs, for lobbyists who specialize in such industries as telecommunications, agriculture and high tech, Capitol Hill just doesn’t have much of an appetite for their agenda.

“It’s a holding pattern,— said Jade West, who focuses on trade and tax issues for the National Association of Wholesaler-Distributors.

Veteran lobbyists say it’s unusual for a single piece of legislation to so completely take over a Congress.

Of course there’s the financial services regulatory overhaul and the climate change bill lumbering through the legislative process, but with senior members of the House Financial Services panel and the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee engrossed in working on the health care package, it’s almost impossible to get Members of Congress and staff to pivot to other issues.

“I’d like to think Washington can walk and chew gum at the same time,— said David DiMartino, a public relations consultant at Blue Line Strategic Communications.

But DiMartino says it has been tough to get traction outside of health care — even for a top Congressional priority like climate change.

Case in point, DiMartino said he recently struggled to get an opinion piece on climate change written by President Barack Obama’s pollster Joel Benenson placed in newspapers.

“You have to force the issue and be more creative in how to break through,— DiMartino said, which for him has meant focusing on getting media attention outside the Beltway.

In a down economy where most lobby shops faced a decline in revenue last year, that has translated into working much harder to persuade companies to continue shelling out retainers that can reach up to $50,000 a month when most committees are at a standstill.

“You have to acknowledge right now it’s health care, health care, health care, but that doesn’t mean you quit your job,— one veteran lobbyist said.

For many, that means holding conference calls to plot out post-health reform legislative strategies.

As the calendar year quickly winds down, lobbyists say they are looking for opportunities in legislative “must do’s.— This year there are at least two tax bills — the estate tax, which is slated to expire at the end of the year, and the research and development tax bill — that are garnering some attention.

Lobbyists say they are also spending time building up goodwill by hosting fundraisers and bringing clients up to Capitol Hill to tell the positive side of their corporate health care and wellness programs.

But not everybody’s buying the keeping-busy-building-good-relationships mantra.

“That’s just consultant speak because they don’t want to be laid off,— one Democratic trade association lobbyist said. “For the most part, nobody on the Hill wants to hear anything if it’s not health care.—

Lobbyists say even meetings designated for other Congressional business are being taken over by health care.

The House Ways and Means Committee has had two Democratic caucus meetings since returning from the Labor Day recess, and even though they were not supposed to be health-care-related, the entire meetings were about what the Senate is doing on health care, according to one tax lobbyist.

“As a practical matter, there is no real sense of urgency,— the lobbyist said about taking up other official business. “Health care is sort of sucking all the air in the room.—

Even lobbying the administration has stalled as K Streeters are having to wait for political appointees to get Senate confirmation.

“This town is dead as a fricking doornail,— said one lobbyist with clients waiting for executive branch agencies to take action. “The administration is moving very slow. Half of their people haven’t been appointed yet.—

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