With Uncle Sam poised to drop $700 billion or so to get the economy going again, one group rushed into overdrive weeks ago: lobbyists.
Congress goes out of town at year's end, so the lucky ones on K Street usually cap the year with holiday bashes, bonus checks, and vacation getaways. Not now. Many are burning up shoe leather as they pitch people, projects, companies, and places of higher learning as deserving of stimulus dollars.
The frenzy is hardly surprising, since the stimulus is apt to spiral into the biggest government spending binge since World War II.
"It's very intense right now," one Washington lobbyist said. "I'm working late every day, until 9 o'clock, 10 o'clock. Every imaginable client has been calling me with ways of how their business, or their projects, should fit into the economic stimulus package. It's wild. No idea is too far-fetched for people."
An estimated 13,500 lobbyists toil in the nation's capital, but the boom is not universal. Some lobbyists have been given pink slips or warned they'll be let go in March or April, says lobbyist Paul Miller, the immediate past president of the American League of Lobbyists. Those who've kept their jobs find they're "so busy it's hard to keep their heads above water," he says. "There is a scramble with regard to the stimulus."
At one of the major players, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, lobbyist Janet Kavinoky says the last week of the year often is a time to catch your breath, plan for the next 12 months, and, when a new Congress is preparing to be sworn in, schedule meet-and-greets with new lawmakers.
"This time, the pace is much faster, and there is much more going on, because everyone recognizes that next week, Congress is going to be in a full-court press to get a stimulus package moving," she said. "It's a scramble to put out information to shape or frame the debate and to try and get key priorities into the stimulus legislation."
The chamber bills itself as the world's largest business federation, representing more than 3 million businesses and groups. For Kavinoky, this is an especially hectic time because she directs its lobbying in the area of transportation infrastructure—in her words, "everything that floats, flies, rolls, and flows: planes, trains, automobiles, information, energy, and water."
She has a plan of attack similar to the chamber's support for the $700 billion financial rescue package in the fall: sending its small army of lobbyists to visit congressional offices, coordinating with trade associations, and marshaling the grass roots and so-called grass tops, or influential people on the local and state level, and asking them to voice support for priorities drawn up by the chamber and sent to Congress three days after Barack Obama's election. The group is keen to stimulate the overall economy, especially sectors hurt by the recession, such as housing, auto manufacturing, infrastructure, and travel.
Infrastructure is one priority identified by Obama and his team. Others include a middle-class tax cut, aid to the states, so-called green jobs, building schools, expanding broadband access, and improving information technology within healthcare.
Several other major players are busy lobbying, including the National Governors Association, the Conference of Mayors, the National Association of Counties, and the AFL-CIO. There's also a bipartisan group called Building America's Future that is pushing for infrastructure dollars. It's led by three heavyweights: Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger of California, Gov. Ed Rendell of Pennsylvania, and Mayor Michael Bloomberg of New York.
This week, a half-dozen Republican members of Congress are being singled out by a group called the Campaign for Jobs and Economic Recovery, a coalition of progressive and labor groups. The members are being urged to vote in favor of the stimulus. The coalition says it will make its point with news conferences, ads, and a barrage of "phone calls and E-mails to be lobbed into Congress."
Congress is often late in passing major, multiyear spending bills—from the farm bill to money for highways and transit—but the economic crisis means time is of the essence. President-elect Barack Obama, who takes the oath of office January 20, wants a stimulus package approved by Congress on his desk immediately and is intent on approving "shovel-ready" projects to inject money into the economy quickly. The new Congress meets January 6, just two weeks before Obama's swearing-in.
"It's classic: Congress doesn't act until there's an emergency," Kavinoky says. "The lobbying on the stimulus is going to be as intense as anything we've seen, simply because there's so much at stake and so much a sense of urgency."
With some economists pushing for $1 trillion or more in spending, the prospect has both reignited old rivalries (for instance, asphalt versus cement for roads) and resulted in forced marriages. At the pro-business chamber, Kavinoky says she works closely on transportation issues with labor unions and just met to compare notes with an official from an environmental group, the Natural Resources Defense Council.
There's a lot of ground to cover, too. From lobbyist Miller: "We're talking to everybody: Republicans and Democrats, the Ways and Means Committee and the Appropriations Committee, congressional leadership on both sides of the aisle, and the presidential transition team."
Another lobbyist says he's had to tell some clients that their ideas won't fly and that they should wait until the next round of federal appropriations for fiscal year 2010. "We have long-standing relationships [on Capitol Hill] that we're not going to undermine by bringing garbage to the table," said this lobbyist, who asked to remain anonymous. "We all know the state of the economy is terrible, and we want to make sure that we're all contributing."
At the watchdog group Taxpayers for Common Sense, Vice President Steve Ellis says much of the lobbying is going on below the radar. But he imagines the competition is fierce, given the size of the package, which could grow to $800 billion or more. "Even if you get one tenth of a percent, you're talking about a lot of cash, $800 million," he says. "Experience has shown when there's a lot of money to be had, there's a lot of action on K Street."