From the Editor: Slowdown in the Gulch

Posted June 17, 2011 at 10:13am

A quarter-century after it was published, “Showdown at Gucci Gulch” remains the seminal book about the high-stakes, big-money world of Washington lobbying. The ways of cable television advertising, grass-roots email crusading and even political fundraising have all changed substantially, but the lobbyist’s fundamentally simple job has not: Persuade lawmakers and regulators to do what the client wants.

One reason why Alan Murray and Jeff Birnbaum wrote such an instructive narrative is they had such terrific material to work with. There really can be no bigger or better lobbying vehicle than a rewrite of federal tax law — especially when momentum, from the start, was in favor of an overhaul becoming law. That dynamic put the lobbyists on offense, which is always the place they’d rather be, because as a general rule it takes more work (which means the firms can charge more) to get language written into a bill than it does to keep a provision out. And the ground rules  of 1986 essentially boiled down to the idea that everything was going to be out of the IRS code unless it was put back in — the very essence of a guaranteed K Street bonanza.

This year is proving to be the opposite. The status quo is presumed to remain intact, and the policy changes that do end up being legislated will likely be short-lived and narrowly cast.

The reasons, as Roll Call’s Kate
Ackley explains in the opening story, are mainly the newly divided Congress and a recognition that neither the balky economy nor the budgetary morass allows for much legislative innovation — let alone the sort of earmarking that’s long been the wellspring of K Street cash.

And so lobbying today is all about protecting what you’ve got — making sure, in other words, that the client, the association member or the corporate boss does not end up as one of the year’s few victims. The seven accompanying pieces (by CQ legislative beat reporters) illustrate the defensive crouch being practiced by a group as diverse as TV stations, hospitals, retailers, bridge builders, chemical mixers, solar panel fabricators and weapons makers.

This is the third issue of our new, bimonthly magazine created to explore a broad question about today’s Washington through the prism of all the hot topics of the moment. The next Outlook, coming in August, will assess the effects of Sept. 11 on the way so many diverse aspects of government have come to operate in the past decade.