Corrected, Jan. 5 | Before the elections, lobbyists with ties to House Republicans, such as Annie Palisi, had to wonder how much influence they would have in the 117th Congress. They are not worrying anymore.
While Democrats predicted their party would gain seats in the chamber, in reality they lost at least 12 incumbents — and did not unseat a single House Republican. And that means Palisi, a former House GOP leadership aide-turned-lobbyist with the bipartisan firm Invariant, and others with similar backgrounds are poised to see their fortunes rise.
Democrats’ superslim majority this year in the chamber will offer House Republicans uncommon sway for the minority party, providing opportunities to help broker legislative deals, or sink them. And that means the lobbyists with close ties to House GOP leaders, including Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and the top Republicans on congressional committees, may play an increasingly prominent role in the influence sector.
The business clients that turn to K Street lobbyists for help also look at the current minority party as a long-term investment. In the 2022 elections, House Republicans may well regain control.
“Leading up to the election, there was a lot more emphasis from our clients on what does a blue wave look like,” Palisi said, noting that clients wanted a better read on legislation they should expect should Speaker Nancy Pelosi have won a bigger majority.
“After the election, people were like, ‘Whoa, OK, now how does that change our planning?’ We prepare our clients so they can win, regardless of who holds the gavel,” she said.
Palisi, who worked for former Speaker John A. Boehner, and other lobbyists with deep ties to the House GOP — including Boehner himself, who is a senior strategic adviser at the lobbying and law firm Squire Patton Boggs — see a Congress of opportunity ahead.
“It’s going to be an entirely different ball game, and I think House Republicans are excited,” said Casey Higgins, a senior policy adviser at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, who served as assistant to the speaker for policy and trade counsel under Paul D. Ryan. “And House Republican lobbyists like myself are excited.”
Clients are clamoring for insight into the minority as companies and organizations plot out their strategies for navigating the new Congress and administration.
“In this incoming Congress, there’s nothing that’s going to become law that House Republicans won’t have a say in,” said John Stipicevic, head of advocacy at the CGCN Group and a former deputy chief of staff for floor and member services to McCarthy. “A Biden administration will have to work constructively with Leader McCarthy and his conference to get meaningful legislation passed.”
Given Democrats’ slim majority, “I think there’s a legitimate concern of how to control the floor,” Stipicevic said.
Pelosi, should she retain the speaker’s gavel, as expected, will command a fractured caucus that includes moderate-leaning members, such as Virginia’s Abigail Spanberger, who won in a district that President Donald Trump also won in 2016 and narrowly lost in November. The party’s progressive wing, meanwhile, is also on the ascent, exposing fractures in the majority on policy and tactics.
House Democrats also are poised to lose at least three members early on to the Biden administration: Cedric L. Richmond of Louisiana, Marcia L. Fudge of Ohio and Deb Haaland of New Mexico. Though those seats are likely to remain in the party’s control, they will remain vacant for several months at least.
Such uncertainty amid the slimmest of margins can produce alliances of convenience among blocs of lawmakers, sometimes across party lines.
“When you get to that point, every single vote counts,” said Kathryn Lehman, a longtime House GOP leadership aide who is now a partner at the lobbying and law firm Holland & Knight.
Added Kyle Nevins, another former House GOP leadership staffer: “We’re in some unprecedented territory.”
While one race in New York remains uncalled and a Democrat is challenging a Republican’s six-vote win in Iowa, Pelosi is facing a nine- to 11-seat majority, the smallest for Democrats following an election since since 1877. Republicans have more recent experience with narrow margins: The GOP held a seven-seat majority after the 2000 elections.
Nevins — whose recently registered clients include Facebook, the Broadway League, Goldman Sachs Group and SpaceX — is now a lobbyist at the all-Republican lobbying shop Harbinger Strategies. If and when the House ends proxy voting, which allows lawmakers to cast their votes through colleagues to avoid coming to the Capitol during the pandemic, tallies on controversial measures could come down to the wire.
“If three, four House Democrats don’t show up on any given day, then you put Kevin McCarthy in the position of getting control of the House floor at any given time,” Nevins said. “We’re entering a Congress where the minority in the House is going to be more important than we’ve ever seen it be, especially when they’re the ones who are providing votes for deals that are getting cut.”
Even Democratic lobbyists say they’ll lean on their GOP counterparts when it comes to issue campaigns in the House.
“We haven’t seen this narrow of a majority in our lifetime,” said Democrat Lisa Kountoupes, president of the lobbying firm Kountoupes, Denham, Carr & Reid. Her colleague David Peluso, for example, is a former chief of staff to Washington Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers, who will serve as the top Republican on the House Energy & Commerce Committee. That panel’s jurisdiction includes climate change and pharmaceutical matters, among others.
“All of the Republicans atop committees are going to be in a position to be really impactful,” Kountoupes said.
Higgins, the Akin Gump lobbyist, noted that Republicans will fill more seats on House committees because of the small Democratic majority, adding a different dynamic to the granular level of policymaking and outside influences on Capitol Hill.
“It’s important to recognize, it’s not just the vote on the floor that matters, it’s kind of the whole process,” said Higgins, whose registered lobbying clients have included Keidanren, a Japanese business federation, and the National Thoroughbred Racing Association, among others.
Republican lobbyists offer competing strategies for how best to sway policy and legislation in the 117th Congress. Most agree that leadership will remain the power center, but in addition to committees, some lobbyists see the potential for an increasingly pivotal middle, including the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus.
The middle ground
“The moderates on both sides, they haven’t harnessed their power quite yet, but it’s growing,” Higgins said. “The Problem Solvers Caucus is often teased for not having solved any problems, but they’re gaining in their influence and they’re starting to figure it out.”
On major policy matters, such as climate change or immigration, House Republicans will look to craft their own agendas as a way of offering alternative proposals that potentially could appeal even to some of the endangered Democrats.
The question remains, however, whether the House Republican leadership uses its newfound power to try to force consensus, or to create wedges among Democrats.
“And the answer is both,” Higgins said. “What the business community needs to do is figure out, frankly, how to work with Republican lobbyists to make targeted, incremental changes where they can to improve legislation.”
Palisi, the lobbyist at Invariant, said she always advises clients not to just focus on the majority, and the 117th Congress offers an example of why.
“Putting all your eggs in the Democrat basket, and having no relationships with Republicans, really doesn’t do you any good,” she said. “The tight majority only enhances Leader McCarthy’s political power. Pelosi has to worry about losing votes. McCarthy doesn’t.”
This report has been revised to reflect that Joe Biden won Rep. Abigail Spanberger’s district in 2020.