Blue Chips Mull Moves to K Street

Posted July 20, 2012 at 5:36pm

If K Street firms scooped up their hottest Hill prospects in a sports-style draft, the No. 1 pick would almost certainly be Russell Sullivan.

Then again, it might be Brett Loper.

Sullivan, staff director of the Senate Finance Committee, and Loper, who is Speaker John Boehner’s policy director and previously ran the House Ways and Means panel, are consensus trophy hires as lobbying firms scout Congressional staffers they’d like to bring to the private sector.

At a time when the K Street job market looks weak for mid- and low-level aides looking to make a break, the all-stars such as Sullivan and Loper would command top salaries, according to interviews with more than a dozen downtown hiring partners and head hunters. Both have experience in two areas that K Street prizes: taxes and health care.

“Anyone who’s doing either taxes or health care is walking gold,” said Ivan Adler, a lobbying recruiter with the McCormick Group. “They are the most desirable animals in the forest and will be in the future.”

Nels Olson, vice chairman and co-leader of board and CEO services at the recruiting firm Korn/Ferry, added that unlike in past election years, several corporations and associations aren’t delaying hiring for top lobbying jobs.

“They want to be ready no matter what happens, one way or the other,” Olson said. “They’re not looking from a political perspective. They’re not looking for people who are too partisan one way or the other.”

Downtown sources say K Street salaries have flattened in general. And many lobby shop managers say the job market will remain slow until after Election Day. But even beyond that, slower growth and revenue dips are leading many firms to look only for lobbyists who can bring existing clients with them, which excludes Congressional aides.

“I can tell you everybody I’m looking at right now has business,” the leader of one lobbying practice said. “I don’t think that’s a reflection of the quality of the folks on the Hill, but it’s a reflection of the fact that it’s going to be much harder in this environment for people coming out of government to develop business.”

That’s largely because many corporations and associations have reduced their lobbying budgets.

“Most firms are being cautious about what next year looks like both politically and financially,” said a top Democrat at a lobbying shop.

A major downside facing lobbyists fresh off the Hill is that many of them, especially the most senior aides, will be under a lobbying ban, typically for one year, before they are permitted to lobby their former colleagues and bosses in Congress.

Despite those obstacles, the Sullivans and Lopers would have no trouble luring clients. Ditto for a select few others who, like Loper, bring previous K Street experience or could provide clients access to specific blocs of Members.

On the Senate side, lobbyists have their eyes on David Hoppe, who is chief of staff to outgoing Sen. Jon Kyl (R-Ariz.) and spent eight years with QGA Public Affairs. Other hot prospects include Charles Kieffer, a budget expert who previously was staff director of the Senate Appropriations Committee under then-Chairman Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.). Kieffer, who spent 16 years at the Office of Management and Budget, is now staff director of the Senate Appropriations Subcommittee on Homeland Security.

Of course, just because these top Hill aides are drawing the attention of K Street doesn’t mean any will make a move or are even willing to entertain offers. Indeed, some of the most sought-after staffers would be hard-pressed to leave the Hill when next year promises to be big in their areas of expertise, such as tax reform.

But for some, the lure of double or even — in the case of Sullivan — more than quadruple their government salaries might be too strong.

“Just this week alone, I’ve talked to half a dozen very senior Hill types who are positioning themselves to make a move around the election,” Olson said last week.