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Conventions Lose Appeal for D.C. Lobbyists

Washington, D.C., lobbyists are not exactly jazzed about heading south for the major party conventions.

The sluggish economy, new restrictions on contributions and anti-corporate sentiment has zapped the fun out of the Republican and Democratic national conventions for political players.

The multiday schmooze-fests present a rare opportunity to chat up politicians and Capitol Hill aides in a social setting — a quadrennial confab that’s usually catnip to any savvy insider.

But with fewer parties on the docket, fewer Members of Congress attending and fewer dollars to throw around, many lobbyists say the only thing they will get out of this year’s events in Charlotte, N.C., and Tampa, Fla., is a sunburn.

“A lot of lobbyists around town are still wrestling with whether to even go,” said Jack Howard, the vice chairman and chief operating officer of Wexler &Walker Public Policy Associates. “In a broader sense, conventions themselves have lost a lot of the pizzazz.”

On the Democratic side, new restrictions on donations and the administration’s hostile public pronouncements toward K Street have created an enthusiasm deficit. The Democratic host committee, Charlotte in 2012, has pledged to reject all corporate, lobbyist and political action committee cash. Individual donations cannot exceed $100,000.

The self-imposed restrictions are a continuation of President Barack Obama’s pledge to take money out of politics, but the move could make it hard for the committee to come up with the $36.65 million it has pledged to raise to support the event, which is less than a month away.

“The financial services industry — like many industries — has become more cognizant of the bottom line,” a banking industry lobbyist told Roll Call. “That’s why folks are really scrounging around to get folks to come down.”

Tens of Democratic Members of Congress have said they will heed the advice of Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Chairman Steve Israel (N.Y.) and skip the convention to focus on their re-election bids.

“The level of access of Members is not there anymore,” the lobbyist added.

Even Republican lobbyists are passing on the festivities or grudgingly making the trip because they work in an official capacity for the party.

“It’s the criminalization of engagement. The optics are so bad that you’re better off not going,” said one Republican lobbyist with close ties to the campaign of presumptive GOP presidential nominee Mitt Romney. “If your goal is to influence the political process and be part of it, don’t bother.”

With just three weeks remaining before the Tampa convention kicks off Aug. 27, convention dance cards are noticeably lighter than in years past, as companies team up with charities to host events or scuttle them all together.

There are K Streeters who still want to play: Mehlman Vogel Castagnetti plans to ferry clients around Tampa in a luxury bus equipped with a disco ball, and Republican lobbyist Ari Storch is hosting a charity golf tournament at TPC Tampa Bay. Still, many others said the risks are too high.

Lobbyists fear political trackers fielded by groups such as the American Bridge, a Democratic opposition research organization, might catch camera footage of Republicans flirting with corporate America.

“It’s becoming more and more dangerous to have your name out there,” another Republican consultant said. “It’s better to be under the radar.”

That is especially true for in-house corporate lobbyists.

General Motors, for example, contributed $200,000 to each party’s host committees in 2008 and sent 735 cars to the two events combined, according to data compiled by the Campaign Finance Institute.

This year, the automaker is sitting out the conventions.

“Right now our energies are fully focused on designing, building and selling cars,” the company said in a statement. “Our presence at the conventions is at a level that reflects that focus.”

It’s a similar story for banks and other financial institutions, still reeling from the 2008 financial meltdown, according to industry lobbyists.

Defense firms in particular are trying to avoid any extra expenses, with the prospect of $500 billion in automatic cuts to the Pentagon budget looming next year. Many firms are focusing their efforts on protecting their projects from the cuts.

“They are all looking to cut costs across the board,” said one Republican defense lobbyist who is not attending his party’s convention. “They are not even attending some key trade shows, so they are even more reluctant to spend resources on the conventions.”

Still, service-oriented companies such as Coca-Cola, AT&T, Microsoft and UPS, official sponsors of the GOP convention in Tampa, continue to view the conventions as powerful branding opportunities.

Lobbyists at several of those companies said they were going for marketing purposes, not to influence the political conversation.

Coca-Cola plans to send at least three lobbyists from its Washington, D.C., office, as well as several state-based lobbyists, to both conventions. The company is one of several official sponsors of the GOP convention in Tampa.

It has also made a financial commitment to a Democratic committee through a sister nonprofit, dubbed New American City Inc., that can accept corporate contributions.

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