The sun is setting on a K Street bromance.
Next Wednesday, former Rep. Billy Tauzin (R-La.) will turn the lights off in his cavernous Chinatown office at the Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America for the last time. But for the first time in 18 years, his trusty mouthpiece Ken Johnson won’t be at his side.
After more than five years as PhRMA’s president, Tauzin’s departure comes on the heels of perhaps the biggest legislative gamble for any single industry in recent memory: the drug industry’s $80 billion deal with the White House during the health care debate.
Tauzin said it made for the right time to turn the page.
The one-time Democrat and Blue Dog Coalition co-founder said he’ll most likely start a lobbying firm with his son, Tom, who now works for former Rep. Bill Brewster (D-Okla.) at the Capitol Hill Consulting Group. Tauzin may also practice law in Texas, where he has a ranch, help with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Gulf Coast oil spill back home, and continue to fundraise for Democrats and Republicans alike.
But Johnson is unlikely to be a part of these new endeavors, both men said.
“I don’t think I’m going to miss him — free of Ken for a while,” Tauzin joked in an interview this week. “Every once in a while he does something really awful, as we all do, but our years together have been ones of deep mutual respect, and the friendship is not going to end.”
Tauzin and Johnson were deemed “attached at the hip” by one source during their decade-plus on Capitol Hill, and Tauzin brought his communications director with him when he gave up his Energy and Commerce gavel for the top PhRMA job in 2005. The duo finish each other’s sentences and correct each other’s stories.
What’s next for Johnson will have to wait until August, he said, when his own tenure at PhRMA officially ends. Johnson’s close professional relationship with Tauzin, which began nearly two decades ago, has been fortuitous for the former television news reporter.
In 1993, the unemployed, recent divorcee cold-called Tauzin for a press job that had just been vacated.
“So this idiot says, I’d come to Washington and work for you for nothing.’ I said, That’s a good salary,’ and hired him,” Tauzin recalled with a grin Monday. “He was destitute, he was on the street, his sugar mama had kicked him out and he was a hopeless case.”
In 2005, Johnson left his $151,000 Hill job for a PhRMA post that paid him $654,000 in 2008, according to tax filings and LegiStorm data.
Since his arrival on Capitol Hill in 1993, Johnson has also been the subject of equal parts scorn and envy for his unusually close relationship with his boss. The tight bond ruffled feathers during the Republican heydays in the 1990s and continued through their tenure at PhRMA.
“Ken fancied himself as close to a peer to Members as a staffer could be. That sort of fed into this pompous reputation that he got, a caricature of sorts,” a former Republican House staffer said on the condition of anonymity. “A plenty friendly guy, but he wanted you to know that he was a big deal.”
That closeness appeared to manifest itself just before Christmas last year, when the New York Times quoted Johnson — he insists out of context — suggesting that drug companies were willing to renegotiate their $80 billion health care deal.
Roll Call later reported that Johnson’s comments set off a firestorm among some PhRMA members, who demanded that Tauzin and Johnson step down.
In an interview this week, Tauzin took issue with all but one of Roll Call’s characterizations about their departure.
“Your paper printed every stupid rumor imaginable about me leaving PhRMA,” Tauzin said. “But there was one comment made among all those stupid and ugly rumors that you all printed that was absolutely true. It was a comment about my fierce loyalty.”
“I’m fiercely loyal to people who are loyal to me,” he continued. “And Ken has been fiercely loyal to me, and I’ve been fiercely loyal to him.”
Although Tauzin offered only vague details about his next chapter downtown, he hinted that his new K Street venture may not be a traditional enterprise. He plans to stay on as a PhRMA consultant to help the group transition to a new, as-yet-unnamed leader. In addition to the pharmaceutical industry, Tauzin suggested that energy and telecommunications work will round out his practice.
He doesn’t expect to struggle to generate business.
“Our problem is going to be saying no, not yes,” he predicted.
New Way of Doing Business
Tauzin said the health care debate changed for good how corporations and other stakeholders do business in Washington, dispatching executives and other principals and relying less on contract shops for blanket coverage.
“You’re going to see more and more of a direct conversation between presidents, leaders of the House and Senate, and the leaders of business, industry, unions and social organizations in America, rather than lobbyists,” he said. “That was hard to accomplish a few years ago, but with iPads and iPhones and the amazing ability of the Internet, you’re going to see all sorts of new forms of political conversations that you haven’t seen.”
“Washington is infatuated with big leaders,” he added. “It’s a lot more wholesome than lobbyists trucking up and doing the job.”
On Monday, a new, still-boxed iPad was visible in Tauzin’s office.
After tilting the once-GOP-leaning PhRMA toward the majority party during the past five years, Tauzin may assume a higher political profile now that he doesn’t have to weigh the political whims of pharmaceutical executives.
After the 1994 House Republican takeover, Tauzin famously bolted the Democratic Party for the GOP, a change that he said was not opportunistic — a contrast, he said, from Pennsylvania Sen. Arlen Specter’s move to the Democratic Party in 2009.
“There’s a huge difference between what Arlen went through and what I went through,” Tauzin said. “I didn’t leave for politics. It didn’t matter to people back home what party I was in. It wasn’t about elections or positioning myself or anything.”
His 1995 Republican conversion allows Tauzin to play both sides of the fence. And as he plots his next move, he appears to be fashioning himself as the post-partisan lobbyist. Tauzin last weekend attended a Blue Dog Coalition fundraiser for a Member whom he declined to name. Tauzin is now also finalizing his plans to campaign for Texas Gov. Rick Perry (R) in the fall.
He said political parties continue to “help organize our ideas in America,” but he argued that the labels are essentially irrelevant for individual moderates who routinely cross party lines.
“These guys in the middle are important,” Tauzin said. “They’re the ones that force the big differences to become less big and move the country forward.”
Tea Party Time’
The former Louisiana lawmaker also praised the grass-roots contributions of the tea party, a movement led in part by his former House GOP colleague Dick Armey (Texas). While in office, Tauzin regularly used imagery from the 1773 revolt to rail against the tax code, writing in the pages of Roll Call 16 years ago, “It’s Tea Party time once again in America!”
In 1998, Armey and Tauzin embarked on a 25-city tour to pitch a plan to abolish the federal tax code, a campaign that included a re-enactment of the original Boston Harbor protest.
With popular discontent finally boiling, Tauzin said, it’s now up to GOP leaders to convert those frustrations into votes.
“The tea party is reminding the Republican Party about what it stands for and reminding its candidates that they can’t go to Washington and become problems that they stand against — they have to stand against earmarks, stand against deficit spending, higher taxes, stand against the role of government growing in our lives,” he said. “But the Republican Party has to embrace the tea party movement and make it central to its base rather than something extraneous.”
Former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin (R) is also altering the demographic of Tauzin’s adopted political party, a change that he said is positive. He said that although it’s unlikely Palin will ever reach the presidential ballot again, she is bringing a key voting bloc back to the Republican Party: women.
“Sarah Palin is to the Republican Party what Jesse Jackson was to the Democratic Party. She stirs up the strong emotional sentiments just like Jesse did,” Tauzin said, referring to African-American activist and politician Jackson. “I don’t know if she’ll ever be a candidate for president or vice president again, but she serves a useful purpose — just like the tea party crowd serves a useful purpose.”