It’s Another World to the Influence Industry

Posted January 15, 2010 at 5:36pm

With its global reach, the Senate Foreign Relations Committee attracts as wide a swath of special interests as any on Capitol Hill. Lobbyists for countries as tiny as Liechtenstein and large international relief groups such as Oxfam all try to make their case before Members and staff.

Foreign governments have nabbed some of the top lobbying firms in town with their stable of Capitol Hill veterans to gain access to the committee, which is chaired by Sen. John Kerry (D-Mass.) and whose top Republican is Sen. Dick Lugar (Ind.).

Some lobbyists, however, note that dealing with the committee is markedly different than other Congressional panels, saying it is less partisan and more policy-oriented.

And spokesmen for the committee say the lawmakers and staff rely as much or more on foreign policy experts as they do on the hired guns for guidance.

Hadar Susskind, the director of policy and strategy for J Street, a liberal Jewish group trying to resolve the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, said the discussions with the committee are at a high level.

“We’re dealing with very large geopolitical questions,— he said. “This isn’t a discussion about renaming a post office.—

Susskind also said that it behooves lobbyists who deal with the committee to do their homework since the staff and key lawmakers are often well-versed on the subject matter.

“If you are faking it, John Kerry would know it,— he said.

Mark Siegel, who represents the government of Pakistan, said that in making a case before the committee, “you are not starting from ground zero.—

“You can really engage them intellectually,— said Siegel, who works for the law firm Locke Lord Bissell & Liddell. He added that in an era of increased partisan rancor, the Democrats and Republicans on the Foreign Relations Committee still have a relatively good working relationship.

Kerry and Lugar, for example, co-sponsored legislation signed by the president last year that provided $7.5 billion in assistance to Pakistan.

Andy Fisher, a spokesman for Lugar, agreed that “most of the time,— the committee has been less partisan, but he said it faces some tough issues in the coming year including an arms control treaty.

He said that many of the groups that appear before the committee may not be considered lobbyists in the conventional sense and instead hail from international humanitarian groups such as Oxfam or are officials with Washington, D.C., think tanks or former State Department officials.

“These are people who have been active in foreign policy,— Fisher said.

Greg Adams, acting director of aid effectiveness for Oxfam, said his group meets with Senate Foreign Relations Committee staff “to keep them informed on what is happening on the ground— in the 120 developing countries the humanitarian organization serves. Adams said Oxfam can often give staffers a different perspective from the one they get from the State Department or Pentagon in hot spots such as Afghanistan.

Adams also described the Foreign Relations Committee as “an oasis of bipartisanship— where Oxfam often briefs Republican and Democratic staffers together — something he said does not typically happen with other committees.

A number of high-profile advocacy groups, particularly those involved in Middle East issues, are also actively involved in lobbying the committee. One example is the American Israel Public Affairs Committee. According to its lobbying disclosure forms filed with the Senate, AIPAC spent $2 million in federal lobbying in the first three quarters of 2009 and listed a number of priorities including “economic and diplomatic tools to stop the Iranian nuclear program.—

An AIPAC spokesman did not return a phone call or e-mail seeking comment.

Frederick Jones, a spokesman for Foreign Relations Committee Democrats, said the panel does not keep a list of everyone who has lobbied it. Jones said most of the meetings with the staff and the chairman involve foreign ministers and their embassy staffs.

Jones added that sometimes the embassy officials are accompanied by outside lobbyists. But he said the committee does not always become aware of the lobbyists’ status until after the filing of the disclosure report with the Justice Department under the Foreign Agents Registration Act.

An analysis of FARA records for 2008 by the Sunlight Foundation and ProPublica found that lobbyists for foreign countries reported 50 contacts with Kerry or his staff. Contacts included e-mails, phone conversations and meetings with staff and lawmakers on the committee. They can be as simple as sending press clippings to a staffer or holding a meeting with a Senator. The lobbyists representing foreign entities include some of the biggest firms in town.

Bill Allison, editorial director of the Sunlight Foundation, said it is often countries with less-seasoned diplomatic corps who hire the prestigious firms with Capitol Hill veterans to try to gain access to key Congressional panels such as Foreign Relations.

“It’s almost like you are renting a diplomatic corps,— Allison said.

For example, Rosa Whitaker of the Whitaker Group, which represents the African nation of Ghana, was involved in setting up a meeting with Kerry to discuss the President’s Emergency Plan for AIDS Relief, according to disclosure reports.

Whitaker is a former assistant U.S. trade representative for Africa and former trade adviser to Rep. Charlie Rangel (D-N.Y.), chairman of the House Ways and Means Committee.

The firm Covington & Burling e-mailed committee staff on behalf of Liechtenstein about U.S. relations with the small principality in Western Europe. And DLA Piper, on behalf of the executive office of Dubai, United Arab Emirates, was involved in a meeting with Kerry regarding U.S.-Dubai relations, according to the disclosure reports.

The reports listed communications with Kerry staffers by the firms BKSH and Dewey & LeBoeuf on behalf of Pakistan, Barbour Griffith & Rogers on behalf of the government of India, and Hogan & Hartson on behalf of Saudi Arabia.

Lobbyists also had 28 contacts with Lugar and his staff during 2008, according to the analysis of FARA reports.

Those contacts included a meeting with Lugar involving the Washington Group and its client, the Embassy of Panama, to discuss the Panama free-trade agreement. Also, Robert Livingston, an ex-House Member and now-head of the Livingston Group, was involved in meeting with Lugar on behalf of his client, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Azerbaijan.

Fisher, Lugar’s spokesman, said the Senator was particularly interested in an oil pipeline project in Azerbaijan.

A former Senate colleague of Lugar’s, the former Majority Leader Bob Dole (R-Kan.), who works for Alston & Bird and was lobbying on behalf of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Representative Office, communicated with Lugar about a reception in honor of Taiwan’s representative to the United States, according to the FARA reports.

“They have a history,— Fisher said, referring to his boss and Dole. But as a general rule, Fisher said Lugar did not allow lobbyists to arrange or attend meetings with their foreign clients.

Fisher said if a lobbyist contacted the Senator’s office, “we would tell them, ‘Have the embassy call us.’—