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‘Curveball like no other:’ Johnson’s rise has K Street trying to keep up

Johnson lacks the network common among more experienced lawmakers

Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., hasn't been in Congress long enough to have a network of former staffers that lobbyists typically rely on.
Speaker Mike Johnson, R-La., hasn't been in Congress long enough to have a network of former staffers that lobbyists typically rely on. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

Rep. Mike Johnson’s unexpected rise to speaker of the House has left K Street scrambling as lobbyists try to establish inroads with the relatively unknown Louisiana Republican and his staff.

Johnson has been in Congress for less than seven years and lacks the deep bench of long-time, trusted aides and ex-staffers that K Street usually relies on to curry favor and peddle influence on the Hill. The result is a flurry of lobbying activity by firms rushing to establish ties to Johnson’s office and ensure settled policy issues remain that way.

“It’s a curveball like no other in lobbying history,” said Kevin O’Neill, chair of Arnold & Porter’s legislative and public policy practice group.

Johnson’s sudden ascent ramps up the uncertainty as Congress barrels toward year-end deadlines on a handful of must-pass bills that often serve as vehicles for a smorgasbord of unrelated policy items.

“It’s going to increase activity tremendously because, again, if I’ve thought an issue was closed, but now the new speaker means I have a viable pathway to arguing that it should be reopened, I’m going to be doing that for a client,” O’Neill said in an interview. “[If] my opponent is now wanting to reopen that, now I’ve got to go out and play defense on something I thought was close to done.”

Complicating lobbyists’ time-sensitive task: Johson himself is relatively unknown on K Street. He arrived to Congress in 2017. His assignments on the House Judiciary and Armed Services committees mean lobbyists haven’t needed to engage him on behalf of corporate clients. Johnson’s short career in Congress means he hasn’t had time to build the network that can be lobbyists’ conduit to the speaker’s office.

“He just doesn’t have trusted people who have Hill experience and who can speak on his behalf. No one’s going to know who speaks for the speaker,” said Jeff Hauser, executive director of the Revolving Door Project, which scrutinizes executive branch appointees for ties to corporate interests. “This is just unusual for interest groups to have a new target so senior with such little time to cultivate them.”

Prominent lawmakers often exist at the center of “circles of influence” made up of staffer alumni that end up in lobbying shops, think tanks or posts within the federal government, Hauser said, citing former Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and retired appropriator Sen. Richard C. Shelby, R-Ala., as examples. Those extended networks are a boon to lobbying firms that can hire allies of influential lawmakers directly and pursue contacts known to have a member’s ear.

“People had less time to cultivate a Mike Johnson network and similarly he has had less time to build one,” Hauser said in an interview. “Being able to tell a client that you can reliably convey asks to the speaker, to the leadership and get commitments out of them is going to be the coin of the realm in lobbying, but being able to deliver that with confidence is exceedingly difficult.”

Johnson’s path to the speaker’s chair is also a contrast to many of his predecessors who have spent time in senior leadership positions or as committee chairs. Either path would involve larger teams than the about a dozen staff Johnson had in his personal office at the time the House elected him as speaker. Former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., had a team of more than 30.

“The principal in any political operation — the biggest scarcity is their time, so much negotiation and so much information exchange has to necessarily occur at the staff level,” Hauser said, adding that it’s easier when third parties feel confident in an aide’s status within the speaker’s orbit.

Since assuming the gavel, Johnson has been on a hiring spree, but lobbyists, many of them former Hill staffers themselves, say it’s hard to match the trust built between members and aides who have worked together for years.

Casey Higgins, senior counsel at Akin who was assistant to the speaker for policy and trade counsel when Paul Ryan, R-Wis., held the gavel, said that because so much comes through the speaker’s office that it’s important for staff to understand how their boss thinks, where they’re willing to negotiate and where they’ll put their foot down because the speaker can’t be everywhere at once.

“It’s just a lot easier when you know how the people around you operate, and that goes both ways,” Higgins said in an interview. “Easier for a staffer when they’ve been with their boss for years and know how he thinks about things. And easier for a member when he knows that a staffer has produced on these levels before and can do so in a way that will be in the best interest of both the speaker and the conference.”

Arnold & Porter’s O’Neill said Johnson’s lack of long-term staff could make it harder for lobbyists to suss out where he stands on issues and whether they’ve made a successful case.

“It means that that team is probably not in a position to immediately channel the thoughts of the boss,” he said. “And that leaves K Street guessing about a lot more issues than they’d like to guess about.”

Lisa Gilbert, executive vice president of Public Citizen, said K Street has a tried-and-true playbook to fall back on as lobbying firms and their clients seek to make inroads with Johnson now that he has the gavel.

“It’s money you give, and it’s the revolving door, and they have neither right now,” she said. “It’s a little bit of a scramble on the part of K Street lobbyists, in particular, to find who they know who knows him [and] to quickly think about where they should be contributing to get to know him if they don’t yet.”

Campaign, political action committee, and party donations are a reliable way to catch a lawmaker’s attention, and raising money for the party has become one way for a speaker to maintain control of the conference, Gilbert said in an interview. It doesn’t always work, as is shown by the ouster of McCarthy, a prolific fundraiser for House Republicans.

K Street will also be looking to bring former Johnson staffers in-house, Revolving Door’s Hauser said. Though with Johnson’s brief tenure in Congress there isn’t a huge applicant pool to pull from.

“It’s a good time to have interned in Mike Johnson’s office four years ago,” Hauser said. “There’s going to be a bull market for anyone who can purport to speak for Mike Johnson.”

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