Lobbying Ban in Spending Bill Could Benefit Select K Street Firms

Posted June 22, 2012 at 5:36pm

Legislation to bar former high-ranking government employees from lobbying on behalf of certain foreign countries, including China and Saudi Arabia, could wind up boosting business for the firms that already do.

The restriction, part of the fiscal 2013 House financial services spending bill, would require former lawmakers, ambassadors and hundreds of Senate-confirmed appointees to wait 10 years before representing foreign governments and other state-sponsored entities in countries deemed by the State Department to suppress religious freedom.

That could be good news for people such as former Rep. Rick Boucher (D-Va.), a lobbyist with Sidley Austin LLP who represents the Chinese telecommunications giant Huawei, and former Rep. Jon Christensen (R-Neb.), who works as an outside lobbyist for Chinese-controlled ZTE Corp.

Neither of the ex-Congressmen would have to drop these clients under the proposed ban, which is not retroactive. Nor would they have to worry about losing those accounts to recent Hill and administration alums. They did not return Roll Call’s requests for comment.

“It would lock in certain clients,” said Matt Lauer, a lobbyist at Qorvis Communications, who represents the Saudi Embassy among other foreign governments. “It would create sort of a loyalty to certain firms that have the business.”

Nick Allard, the Democratic co-chairman of Patton Boggs’ lobbying practice, agreed: “This would reduce competition for people who are already out.” The Saudi Embassy pays his firm a monthly retainer of $17,500 to advance its interests in Washington, D.C., federal records show.

Rep. Frank Wolf (R-Va.), a longtime champion of religious freedom, authored the language, which was adopted as an amendment by voice vote during an  appropriations committee markup of the spending bill last week. The bill now heads to the House floor for a vote.

“This is not a patriotic thing to do. … What has this town come to? Is there no decency left?” Wolf said in an interview with Roll Call. “There’s almost a correlation: The more evil they are, the higher they pay.”

Wolf and other Members of Congress, as well as recently resigned Commerce Secretary John Bryson, have been engaged in a public battle with Huawei — the world’s second-largest supplier of telecom and Internet equipment — for months, accusing the firm of doing the Chinese government’s bidding and hammering lobbyists who are defending the firm.

The House Intelligence Committee is investigating the company for potential ties to the Chinese government and national security threats to U.S. infrastructure.

Huawei maintains it is an independent company and would not be affected by the proposed ban, which would restrict lobbying on behalf of Myanmar, China, Eritrea, Iran, North Korea, Saudi Arabia, Sudan and Uzbekistan — the eight nations the State Department classifies as “countries of particular concern” for suppressing religious freedom.

“It would have no relevance to Huawei, which is an independent employee-owned company,” said William Plummer, the company’s vice president for external affairs.

But on K Street, the legislation has been painted as an attempt to restrict the firm.

Lobbyists concede that the legislation could work to their advantage in the near term, but not surprisingly they said it would damage the industry in the long run, leading to more behind-the-scenes influence-peddling.

“It is unwarranted, excessive and unreasonable given the value that many of these foreign service officers and experts in foreign policy provide,” said Marc Ginsberg, former ambassador to Morocco, who now works for APCO Worldwide, but is not a registered lobbyist.

The Foreign Agents Registration Act requires lobbyists representing foreign agents to submit much more detailed information than those representing domestic interests. If former government officials are barred from registering, some might still serve as informal advisors to avoid disclosure, warned Howard Marlowe, president of the American League of Lobbyists.

“This amendment could push people into the shadows,” he said.

Correction: June 25, 3:30 p.m.

An earlier verison of this article mischaracterized former Rep. Jon Christensen’s relationship with ZTE Corp. He is an outside lobbyist.