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K Street backrooms morph into ‘the Zoom where it happens’

Impact on lobbying from coronavirus and protests may be permanent

ANALYSIS — K Street may never look the same.

The upheaval of the coronavirus pandemic along with the wave of protests for racial justice and equality will leave a lasting imprint on the lobbying sector — on the strategies for influencing lawmakers and on the policy agenda. This moment also has expedited the long-running, but slow-to-change conversations about spurring diversity on K Street and in its pipeline for personnel, Capitol Hill.

And if you didn’t notice already, the lobbying corridor’s infamous backrooms have moved over to video chats.

Sure, some of the permanent transformations, like more Zoom conferences and fewer in-person meetings even after the pandemic ends, may appear minor, subtle adaptations around the edges. For an industry, like politics itself, built around face-to-face relationships with conversations sparked at high-dollar fundraising events, even some of the seemingly little shifts may galvanize a larger metamorphosis in the long run.

Lobbyists seem to agree.

More than 70 percent of them believe that even after the COVID-19 threat ebbs, it will still be much more difficult to meet with federal policymakers in person, according to a recent survey by the Public Affairs Council. More than 60 percent of those respondents expect the pandemic will usher in a decline in traditional lobbying trips to the Hill and will bring about an even faster rise in digital advocacy and grassroots campaigns than what was already underway. And 83 percent said videoconferences increasingly will fill that role.

“I was actually very surprised that such a strong majority said they strongly agreed,” says Doug Pinkham, who heads the council. “That doesn’t mean there’s not a great value in showing up. But we’ve heard from a number of members of Congress and their staff that they love the Zoom meetings. You can get more done in an hour.”

Fundraisers, too, have moved into cyberspace, though the return of holding those events in person is almost certain. Some lawmakers have already scheduled such activities for this summer.

Still, K Street has come to the conclusion that “what they call shoe-leather lobbying will be more difficult in the future,” Pinkham adds. That’ll affect Beltway insiders and the associations and groups that arrange fly-in visits from around the country.

The worldwide protests offer a real-time example of what that might mean for influencing the legislative agenda. While it may not be possible to sit down with members of Congress in their offices now, if you need proof that showing up in person can make a powerful statement in pushing for policy change just look to the racial justice demonstrations, sparked by the killing of George Floyd, a black man, by Minnesota police in late May.

Those demonstrations have pushed House Democrats — and even the GOP-led Senate — to craft policing overhauls and have dramatically shifted the attention of the congressional agenda to systemic inequities in the nation’s housing and jobs markets, schools and other areas that stretch beyond law enforcement.

The Black Lives Matter movement “is going to have a lot of impact on legislation going forward,” says lobbyist Tonya Saunders. “It is actually highlighting a number of areas of inequality, as COVID did as well.”

That reckoning has touched K Street, which wasn’t all that long ago mostly an ol’ boys network of predominantly white men.

Michael Williams, another longtime lobbyist, called the pandemic and the video footage of Floyd’s killing a “double whammy.” COVID-19 exposed a racial divide of its own by hitting black and Latino Americans disproportionately.

“COVID showed it to you, then George Floyd just really magnified it and brought into clear view what’s undeniable: There are things that are fundamentally wrong,” Williams says. Because of the lockdowns aimed at curbing the pandemic, he adds, “people were home and not otherwise doing their other things that they do during the day, so you have a microfocus on this. … I don’t think you can come back from that.”

K Street isn’t immune from that microfocus either, as corporate clients work to link their own brands and public policy agendas to the racial justice movement and as firms seek out more diversity among their lobbyists and digital advocates. It will cross into many policy issues too.

“From a lobbying perspective,” Williams says, “all of the questions coming next, whether it’s on appropriations, transportation, infrastructure, whatever issue you’re lobbying on, it’s going to come with the overarching question: How does this fit in with the overall question of economic equality or social justice? I get that from Republicans and Democrats.”

Williams and Saunders, both of whom are black, say they hope that even as lawmakers and staff may continue to push K Street into more virtual encounters after the pandemic, the lobbying industry will make a push to increase diversity among its ranks. 

“There have been some strides made, so you’re not the only one in the room,” Saunders says.

Or perhaps in the new parlance and with the pressure from the protest movement, there will be more black and brown people in the Zoom. 

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