Street Talk: Special Interests Descend on the Hill

Posted April 1, 2012 at 12:03pm

Look who’s coming to the Hill: beer distributors, medical professionals in white coats, restaurant owners, music makers and court reporters.

This month’s recess marks a short respite right in the middle of Capitol Hill’s fly-in season, when just about everybody is a lobbyist. These citizen special interests, queuing up in long lines to get into Congressional office buildings, study printouts of Members’ facebooks and pose for pictures with the Capitol for a backdrop as they wait to get through security.

They also arrive, armed with the talking points of their lobbying associations, with serious policy messages for Members and Hill aides.

Fly-ins are a big chunk of K Street’s workload at this time of year. Just ask Dave Wenhold, president of Miller/Wenhold Capitol Strategies. He specializes in putting together legislative boot camps — grueling, multiday seminars — for clients such as the National Court Reporters Association.

Before Wenhold’s clients even get to Capitol Hill, he said they go through as many as 10 mock meetings where fake lawmakers, such as Sen. Wenhold, don’t always agree with their side.

“They have to come up with meeting with a pro Senator and con Senator or neutral Senator,” Wenhold said. “So they’re extraordinarily prepared for when they go to the Hill.”

When restaurateurs come to town after the April recess, they will serve up plenty of thanks to Members of Congress who supported their position in last year’s debit card swipe fee debate, said Scott DeFife, the top lobbyist for the National Restaurant Association. “The debit swipe fee reforms are working,” he said. “The reality does not match the fear from the small banks and credit unions.”

DeFife said he’s planning on about 500 association members coming to town. “We’ll help them, but largely they’re setting up their own meetings,” he said. “We provide an anchor program with speakers.”

That’s how most groups do fly-ins. The in-house association lobbyists and D.C.-based outside consultants help coordinate meetings and set up speakers for programs and dinners.

Most folks pay their own hotel and airfare (or bill it to their companies as a work expense).

Of course, not everyone in town for a fly-in has to actually fly here.

Betty Buck, who runs Buck Distributing Co. Inc. in Upper Marlboro, Md., spent the past week encamped in the Capitol Hill Hyatt after driving here for the National Beer Wholesaler Association’s annual legislative conference.

She and fellow beer distributor Laurie Watson of Austin, Texas, said they offered a woman’s perspective in the traditionally male-dominated beer business.

“I’ve always felt that as a woman I have delivered the message differently than the guys,” Buck said between meetings with Reps. Chris Van Hollen and Steny Hoyer, both Democrats from Maryland.

Watson said lawmakers don’t easily forget her because she isn’t just another male beer distributor in a gray suit. “Politicians remember me,” she said. “I’m that girl from Texas.”

The beer group is lobbying for state-based alcohol regulation, and Buck, who has four children, said that she can put her message in a mother’s terms. “In Maryland, we don’t have grocery stores with beer on the shelves,” she said. “That’s a mom’s perspective.”

Buck and Watson also said they’ve focused on jobs, taxes and the economy in their meetings with Members and staff this week.

Mary Luehrsen, director of public affairs and government relations for the National Association of Music Merchants, was also in town last week with 26 of the group’s members for more than 70 Hill meetings. The group, which represents companies that make everything from student instruments to music apps, is urging Congress to reauthorize the Elementary and Secondary Education Act and wants to make sure music and the arts aren’t squeezed out of curriculums.

“We have provided very specific language to fix the unintended consequences of [the] No Child Left Behind [Act],” Luehrsen said. On the Hill, she added, “We get an overwhelming positive response, but we’re feeling the blockage of lack of activity in Congress in general. We’ve kind of honed our message.”

And even though plenty of D.C. lobbyists bemoan the compressed schedule of a fly-in, many say the grass-roots advocates make it worthwhile. When Wenhold’s court reporters came to town recently, he had 80 people doing 220 meetings.

“I’ve been doing this for 20 years, and I always get excited about this,” Wenhold said. “When you hear the people talking about how they got to meet their Member of Congress. It really comes back to me: This is what lobbying is supposed to be about.”