Lobbyists Prepare Eleventh-Hour Messaging Before August Recess

Posted July 6, 2012 at 5:14pm

K Street is running out of time.

The four-week stretch before the August recess might sound like a long haul, especially for this Congress. But by lobbyists’ count, they have at most 16 legislative days left before politics completely swamps the Capitol Hill agenda.

“You’re squeezed,” GOP lobbyist Kathryn Lehman of Holland & Knight said. “You’ve got four weeks left before we really go into total political mode. We’re mostly there now on the big stuff.”

John Jonas, who heads the health care practice at Patton Boggs, said his shop is urging clients to press their case, even if Congress isn’t likely to cross much off its to-do list. “The messaging we’ve been giving to our clients is, this is the critical last window you really have,” Jonas said.

Once Congress leaves town, Members will gear up for the political conventions and are likely to return for only a handful of days in the fall. Much of July’s legislative docket is already steeped in election-year messaging, with the Republican-controlled House  scheduled to hold a Wednesday vote to repeal the health care law and Senate Democrats pushing for consideration of the DISCLOSE Act. Neither measure is expected to advance.

Still, lobbyists say they’re trying to influence policy proposals, such as the farm bill in the House, appropriations and tariff measures and other items — none immune, of course, to politics. They’re also looking to grab the ears of Members while they can in the hope of positioning their clients favorably for the lame-duck
session and into next year.

“Now’s a good time to come and do your meetings,” Jonas said. “The fact that they’re not going to enact much legislation is no reason not to be here.”

Lobbyists say they’re devoting attention to unfinished spending bills. “We’re planning on having a defense authorization bill and Defense appropriations bill conferenced and passed before the end of the calendar year,” said Michael Herson, who runs American Defense International.

The farm bill, which already passed the Senate, is going to draw in K Streeters representing agriculture and food interests. The House Agriculture Committee last week released its proposal and plans to mark up the legislation this week. One point of contention has been U.S. sugar policy, so the American Sugar Alliance and its allies downtown plan a full effort, said the group’s Phillip Hayes.

“There is a hope to get something across the finish line, get it through the full House by the August recess,” said Hayes, who noted that his organization supports the Senate-passed bill and the House draft. “Whether or not that’s a political reality is really anybody’s guess.”

It won’t be for lack of trying on his side, he said: “It really is a team effort, reaching as many Members of Congress as we can, whether through us or farmers or others.”

Candy makers and other companies that use sugar have been lobbying for a  change, arguing that current policy restricts sugar imports, driving up the cost of making their products in the United States.

Sugar policies today “cost consumers $3.5 billion in extra food bills and sacrifice up to 20,000 potential jobs each year,” 22 groups — including the National Confectioners Association, Grocery Manufacturers Association and Americans for Tax Reform — wrote to Members last week.

Jennifer Cummings, a spokeswoman for the Coalition for Sugar Reform, said she’s hoping to see bipartisan support for an amendment by Rep. Bob Goodlatte (R-Va.) that would roll back “some of the most onerous provisions that were in the 2008 farm bill.”

K Streeters acknowledge most legislative items are about political messaging or are likely to become embroiled in partisan bickering. And some in the business community say they, too, are focused more on the campaign trail than on Capitol Hill, as Members passed big-ticket items including a highway bill before the July Fourth recess. Other matters will be deferred until after the elections.

“Most of what’s going to happen this summer is for show, like the repeal of the health care bill,” one veteran lobbyist said. Another K Street source noted that much of the agenda will amount to “political positioning votes that each side will use in their campaign narrative.”

One example is Senate consideration of the DISCLOSE Act, which would shed more light on political spending. An aide to Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.), the bill’s lead Senate sponsor, said a vote is expected this month in the chamber.

It has little chance of advancing in the House, but Whitehouse and his allies are moving forward in part to score political points. Despite their embrace of unrestricted super PACs, President Barack Obama and leading Democrats continue to deliver campaign attacks on undisclosed corporate spending in the wake of the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling that deregulated political spending.

When it comes to campaign financing, DISCLOSE will take a much lower priority for lobbyists than the actual call for cash from Members, who are keeping the K Street calendar plenty packed with July events. This week alone, lobbyists can take in a Coldplay concert at the Verizon Center to boost the coffers of Rep. Loretta Sanchez (D-Calif.), join Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) for lunch at Charlie Palmer Steak or chit-chat with Sen. Marco Rubio (R-Fla.) at a reception for the Reclaim America PAC, according to invitations sent to lobbyists.

Eliza Newlin Carney contributed to this report.