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Lobbyists Keep Busy Despite Legislative Lull

Members of Congress, focused almost entirely on the November elections, might not have much on the legislative calender before then. But Cord Sterling certainly doesn’t expect any downtime.

The vice president of legislative affairs for the Aerospace Industries Association is on the front lines of the fight against the possible automatic defense budget cuts, known in wonkspeak as sequestration.

During the August recess, the AIA kept busy pumping out polls and studies showing what it concludes could amount to potentially disastrous economic effects of the cuts. Sterling and his crew are trying to convince Members to come up with an alternative before the elections or, at least, in a lame-duck session.

“We’ve been busy providing that information to Congress,” Sterling said, noting that an AIA poll showed 80 percent of swing-state voters want Congress to find an alternative before Nov. 6.

While much of K Street expects a lull in actual legislating before then, lobbyists say they’ll be busy with preparations for a lame duck that could decide major items such as budget cuts and whether to renew expiring Bush-era tax cuts. Fundraising events and keeping clients stocked with political intelligence are also on the docket.

To help make his point, Sterling this month will help shepherd around the Hill employees of small businesses who are worried about the prospect of defense industry cuts.

“It’s going to be a busy September for us around the country’s fiscal situation, especially the fiscal cliff,” he said.

Rich Gold, who runs the public policy practice at Holland & Knight, said clients demand political intelligence in the runup to the elections.

“We’re playing Carnac for clients,” Gold said, invoking the Johnny Carson fortune teller character. “We’re kind of setting up for what’s likely to happen in a lame duck.”

If President Barack Obama is re-elected, Gold expects a very busy post-election session. “He can pretty much say, ‘The people have spoken. Congress needs to finish up our business,'” Gold said. “He’ll want to deal with sequestration, with the Bush tax cuts, get the appropriations bills done.”

If Republican nominee Mitt Romney wins, Gold predicts the reverse – House and Senate Republicans will wait for the new president to take office. He said a fix to sequestration or the tax cuts could be done in the new year and made retroactive.

The defense industry might command a lot of attention during the coming weeks, but other sectors are also bracing for the fight over taxes.

“Most of it is the standard boots on the ground, door-to-door lobbying,” said Scott Talbott, senior vice president of public policy for the Financial Services Roundtable.

Banks and other financial service companies are trying to save the current tax break on mortgage debt forgiveness.

“After the election, when fates have been determined, that’s when the Congress most likely has a chance of getting something to move, especially relating to the fiscal cliff,” Talbott said. “So then it becomes sort of frenetic when you have a lot to get done.”

Even if Congress remains stalled through the end of this year, Talbott said his industry won’t catch a breather. That’s because the Obama administration continues to write regulations to implement the Dodd-Frank financial regulation law.

“We’ve got all sorts of things at the end of the year,” Talbott explained. One in particular deals with regulations on qualified mortgages that are expected to set boundaries for the U.S. home-loan market. “That’s a game-changer,” he said.

Michael Herson, who runs American Defense International, said his clients, in addition to keeping an eye on the sequester cuts, will be working on a defense authorization bill this fall. But he calculated that there are about eight legislative days remaining before the elections.

The slow legislative environment won’t put a stop to the K Street-Capitol Hill fundraising scene.

“While the legislative side is relatively inactive, the fundraising side is incredibly active,” Herson said. “The fundraising invites have been pouring in hour by hour. So we’ll have lots to keep us busy.”

Democratic lobbyist Steve Elmendorf, founder of Elmendorf Ryan, says he, too, expects very little to happen in the next few weeks other than the continuing resolution and requests for campaign cash.

“It’s not a great time to raise money,” said Elmendorf, a high-dollar donor to his party’s coffers. “But don’t tell the fundraisers that. They’re trying.”