Congress

Lobbyists prepare for a banner year as lobbyist-leery Donald Trump presses his agenda

Construction on the new Tappan Zee Bridge in New York. Despite President-elect Donald Trump’s criticism of lobbyists, they are expected to be in increasing demand as programs such the $1 trillion in infrastructure spending Trump has promised work their way through Congress.
Construction on the new Tappan Zee Bridge in New York. Despite President-elect Donald Trump’s criticism of lobbyists, they are expected to be in increasing demand as programs such the $1 trillion in infrastructure spending Trump has promised work their way through Congress. AP

Donald Trump may soon learn just how difficult it can be to drain a swamp.

He’s banished lobbyists from his transition team and says his administration hires will be barred from lobbying for five years after leaving the White House.

But Trump’s embrace of corporate America and his priorities, including a tax overhaul and a push for a trillion-dollar plan to rebuild crumbling roads and bridges, are more than likely to produce a lobbying boom.

“It’s going to be a field day for special interests and for lobbying,” said Craig Holman, himself a lobbyist for the advocacy group Public Citizen. “Trump is proposing fundamental changes in the federal government and deregulation across the board.”

Holman said he expected corporate America to be “hiring lobbyist armies in force to try to deregulate and pursue the Trump agenda.”

Lobbying activity has declined in recent years, Holman said, but that’s largely because little legislation has moved amid congressional gridlock.

“Now it’s a perfect storm, with Republicans holding both chambers and the White House and likely the Supreme Court,” Holman said. “Now it’s going to be full steam ahead.”

Trump has put tax cuts and overhauling the tax code at the top of his agenda, and many lawmakers think it’s the best opportunity in years for a tax rewrite.

Yet “it’s going to have lobbyists coming out of the woodwork because they’re all going to be defending their particular interests, their tax breaks,” said Rep. Bill Flores, R-Texas, the chairman of the House of Representatives Republican Study Committee.

Trump has also vowed to “unleash” the U.S.’s untapped shale, oil and natural gas reserves.

“And fossil fuel industry lobbyists right now are popping the corks out of the champagne bottles,” said Sen. Edward Markey, D-Mass., citing Trump’s Cabinet selections, including naming the attorney general of the oil- and gas-rich state of Oklahoma to lead the Environmental Protection Agency. “We are going to see billions spent to undermine and dilute clean air, clean water and public health protections.”

But that’s democracy, said Rep. Mario Diaz-Balart, a Miami Republican, who also said he expected “everyone and their brother” to lobby lawmakers to protect their tax exemptions if Congress takes up a tax overhaul.

“You can’t stop people from exercising their constitutional right to be involved,” Diaz-Balart said.

Diaz-Balart said he found no contradiction in Trump’s hiring titans of industry for his Cabinet while excoriating lobbying for the same interests.

“We have two choices otherwise: Only hire bureaucrats that are not involved in real life, or academics,” he said. “There’s an inherent risk with business, but I think there’s something to be said for having people with real life experience with real life issues that affect people.”

Still, Paul Miller, a lobbyist on health care and transportation issues who’s founder of the National Institute for Lobbying & Ethics, said he expected lawmakers to take up Trump’s “drain the swamp” cause and seek to tighten lobbying regulations. His group plans to issue its own proposals in January.“The public doesn’t understand, so they get all riled up,” Miller said. “But most people don’t realize they have their own lobbyist, whether they belong to the Girl Scouts or their own local church. Everyone has one.”

Rep. Paul Marino, R-Pa., an early Trump supporter, said those expecting lobbyists to have outsize influence with Trump would be surprised.

“He’s not going to let his agenda become a big draw for lobbyists because he knows how to do this as a businessperson,” Marino said. “People are jumping to a lot of conclusions. I guess that’s their job, but some people may be in for a very rude awakening.”

Some lobbying outlets and businesses have looked to boost their influence by hiring Republicans to work the new Republican administration. Alphabet’s Google is hiring more conservatives for its lobbying efforts, Reuters reported, and also is advertising for a “liaison to conservative, libertarian and free-market groups.”

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce expanded its lobbying team by five, as longtime lobbyist Bruce Josten retired after 42 years with the chamber. Its new hires include Neil Bradley, former deputy chief of staff and principal policy adviser to House Majority Leaders Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., and Eric Cantor, R-Va. Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former director of the Congressional Budget Office, will advise the chamber as an unpaid, senior policy counselor.

Democratic shops similarly said they expected no drop-off in business.

“Trump’s going to create an enormous amount of activity,” said Steve Elmendorf, a lobbyist and former top aide to former House Majority Leader Richard Gephardt, D-Mo.

Republicans, particularly in the Senate, will need Democrats to pass legislation, and Democratic interests likely will be championing efforts “trying to stop him from doing things,” Elmendorf said.

Lobby shops also could benefit from the unpredictability inherent in a Trump presidency. Trump has appointed corporate titans to his Cabinet but also lashed out at what he sees as cost overruns for a new Air Force One and the military’s next-generation fighter jet, the F-35.

“With Trump there’s enormous uncertainty and anxiety,” Elmendorf said. “If you’re Boeing or Lockheed Martin, both of which he has recently tweeted against, or if you, like most businesses, have an interest in international trade and free trade, you’ve got a lot of anxiety about what he might do.”

CORRECTION: An earlier version of this story incorrectly referred to Douglas Holtz-Eakin’s role with the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. He will advise the chamber as an unpaid, senior policy counselor.

Lesley Clark: 202-383-6054, @lesleyclark

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