While the ongoing health care debate and this year’s $787 billion stimulus package are putting downtown influence peddlers in high cotton, the first nine years of the decade also provided no shortage of work, intrigue and headaches for K Street. From massive fights over free-trade bills to an expansion of Medicare to earmark reforms, it has been a full decade for lobbyists since the new millennium arrived almost 10 years ago.
And with health care reform still raging and an overhaul of the financial system ongoing, the next decade looks like it, too, will keep lobbyists gainfully employed. But before ushering in the new decade, it’s worth a look back at some of the toughest fights.
Known primarily for introducing the American lexicon to a nonculinary usage of the term “doughnut hole,— prescription drugs were bestowed on 40 million seniors in 2003 by the GOP-dominated Congress.
The pharmaceutical industry, now led by then-Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.), emerged the big winner. Tauzin’s Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America also became a popular target for Democrats, who have backed off after the group worked to build ties to the party after the 2006 election.
One health care consultant said there are many similarities between the current debate and the prescription drug wars of yesteryear. “In health care, it’s always going to be the same theme that we’re having now,— the consultant said. “There’s a baseline fight between those who want the government to run it and those who want the benefits provided by the private sector.—
Lobbying and Travel Restrictions
As the old saying goes, one bad apple spoils the bunch. On K Street, that bad apple was Jack Abramoff, a former Republican lobbyist. Now serving time in federal prison, Abramoff’s nontraditional, aggressive and ultimately illegal tactics became emblematic of the GOP’s perceived ethical shortcomings.
Democrats hammered Republicans on their “culture of corruption— in the run-up to the 2006 midterm elections, promising to “drain the swamp— if elected. They were.
And in 2007, the new majority began enacting broad ethics overhauls that banned lobbyist-sponsored trips, dinners, gifts and other one-time Abramoff goodies. Many lobbyists continue to bemoan the restrictions as confusing and ineffective.
One GOP lobbyist said the end of corporate-sponsored “fact-finding— tours was the biggest downer. “The biggest change of the past 10 years is the abolition of trips. That’s a tool in the lobbyist toolkit that’s changed completely,— the lobbyist said. “It was an amazing relationship builder. The place is worse off for getting rid of them.—
Financial Reform, Round One
Since the nation is in the midst of a financial meltdown, it’s easy to forget that the country’s economy stood on the brink of chaos in the early moments of this decade as well.
With the financial markets in shambles because of widespread fraud at Enron, WorldCom and other now-defunct companies, lawmakers forced dramatic new accounting standards — as part of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act of 2002 — on publicly traded firms that lobbyists then and now claim are burdensome and overly draconian.
“It’s a great example of why not to have a piece of legislation moving when the world is collapsing around you,— a tax lobbyist said. “When WorldCom collapsed, the bill went from bad to worse. It’s a good example of events shaping what legislation looks like.
Congress always believes it has to do something if it finds its way to the front page of the newspaper.—
One lobbyist said the Central American Free Trade Agreement was passed by “hand-to-hand— combat up until the last vote for passage was secured.
One lobbyist said it was an emotional, exhausting slog to reach the necessary 217 votes for passage in the House.
Business and manufacturing groups ultimately did the heavy lifting in the closing hours of the debate, spending cash on advertisements and rallying their members to light up the switchboards in Member offices. “It was a struggle,— this lobbyist said.
Remember the budget surpluses? Making good on campaign promises, newly elected President George W. Bush began a series of tax cuts in 2001.
The fight for tax cuts was an easy sell to lawmakers when the government was running in the black, one lobbyist said.
“It was completely different than now because there was no sense of the deficit. No one was opposed to it because there were no offset revenue closers,— the lobbyist said. “It was like being a kid in the candy story.—
But that soon changed. With the country fighting two wars, cash became scarce and tax-cutting advocates quickly had their work cut out for them in zero-sum revenue fights that continue to dominate Capitol Hill. “Now its, I get x, y and z, but I have to get rid of a, b, c,— the source said. “For every happy person, there’s an unhappy person.—