Elite Lobbying Group Becoming 'Next Generation of GOP Power Brokers'


Since early in the year, an elite group of K Street lobbyists with strong Republican pedigrees has been huddling every few weeks with Rep. John A. Boehner, Republican of Ohio, to discuss the House Republican leadership's performance and its strategies for implementing its "Contract with America."

Many of those in the group were formerly lobbyists for the White House or top aides to Republican congressional leaders. In the Bush administration, for instance, Washington lobbyists Nicholas E. Calio and Gary J. Andres ran the White House's liaison operations with the House, doing much of their work out of the offices of then-Minority Whip Newt Gingrich, Republican of Georgia.

Mr. Calio, a founder of O'Brien Calio, and Mr. Andres, a partner with the Dutko Group Inc., are among about a dozen denizens of K Street who have found their services increasingly in demand by the congressional leadership as well as by corporations and trade groups that have big stakes in the Republican contract and are eager to capitalize on the lobbyists' connections.

"These people have worked with the leadership in various capacities for a long time," said Mr. Boehner, who chairs the House Republican Conference. "We have battle scars that have been developed together."

He added that the leaders and the lobbyists "share common principles about what the appropriate role of the federal government is."

Those shared principles have helped to touch off a tidal wave of K Street lobbying on the contract. Working with such Republican leaders as Mr. Boehner, House Majority Whip Tom D. DeLay of Texas and Sen. Paul Coverdell of Georgia, vice chairman of the National Republican Senatorial Committee, the lobbyists have coordinated vote-counting operations, put together talking points for members, run briefings for aides and helped draft House rules that have been crucial to the passage of legislation.

Several of the influence merchants also have been increasingly active in raising campaign money for the GOP. Some pitched in last fall through trade groups, while others have been busy selling tables at such events as the GOP's recent House-Senate dinner. Some of the lobbyists and their corporate clients have further cemented their ties to the Republican leadership by pitching in on the campaign of Senate Majority Leader Bob Dole of Kansas for the Republican presidential nomination.

But the tight ties between the leadership and the lobbyists have prompted some Democratic lawmakers to caution about potential conflicts of interest and about threats to the public interest.

"Whatever boundaries existed between lobbyists and legislators have been pretty well erased," said Rep. George Miller, Democrat of California. "These people are sort of becoming adjunct staff to the Republican leadership.

"There's always been lobbyist involvement, but you have had a different process," he added, pointing out that the rapid timetable for moving the contract through the House didn't allow for enough public scrutiny and obscured the lobbyists' heavy involvement.

"There's a revolution going on up there [on Capitol Hill], and I feel like it's a real honor to participate," said James F. Miller of the Washington law firm of Verner, Liipfert, Berhard, McPherson and Hand, who has worked with the leadership on tax issues and other matters. "I do represent my clients first and foremost," he said, "but fortunately their interests have been consistent with those of the leadership."

Still, the fuzziness of the lines between the work they do for the Republican agenda and for their clients seems potentially troublesome even to some prominent Republicans. "It would be a mistake for Republicans to look too indebted to the business groups or to other special-interest groups," said William Kristol, a Republican strategist and editor of the Weekly Standard, a conservative newspaper that's expected to start publishing in the fall. "They could fall into the same trap that Democrats have."

When the GOP swept into the majority last fall, its new leaders and their old friends on K Street almost immediately began talking about ways to collaborate to advance the contract as well as the party's broader agenda. Those involved in the talks say that they are a natural outgrowth of their personal ties and their shared commitment to the Republican cause. These networks, in fact, underscore the significance of the revolving door between government and the lobbying community. Consider the people who meet with Mr. Boehner every few weeks.

"They're the next generation of GOP power brokers in this town," Dick Van Dongen, president of the National Association of Wholesaler Distributors, which has played a central role in promoting the contract, said of the lobbyists. "They're part and parcel of a network that House Republicans had when they were backbenchers, and they've come along."

These networks, in fact, underscore the significance of the revolving door between government and the lobbying community. Consider the people who meet with Mr. Boehner every few weeks.

Besides Mr. Calio and Mr. Andres, some of the regulars include Verner, Liipfert's Mr. Miller, who was a Treasury Department tax counsel in the Bush administration; Kenneth M. Duberstein, the head of the Duberstein Group, who was the chief of President Ronald Reagan's congressional liaison office; Mr. Duberstein's partner, Henry Gandy, who was a top aide to Senate Majority Whip Trent Lott of Mississippi when he was the House minority whip; Michael Boland, a partner in Boland & Madigan and chief counsel to Mr. Lott in the House; and David A. Bockorny, a partner in Bergner, Bockorny, Clough & Brain, who also helped run the congressional liaison office under Mr. Reagan.

K Street lobbyists have been most heavily involved, however, in working with a few grass-roots groups and large business groups that were assembled to push key parts of the contract.

The coalitions were created with the blessing of the Thursday Group, a weekly skull session that Mr. Boehner and Mr. Coverdell staged for the business and grass-roots groups. Typically, the leading players in the coalitions dovetail closely with such Thursday Group regulars as the Christian Coalition, Citizens for a Sound Economy, the National Association of Home Builders, the National Federation of Independent Business Inc. (NFIB) and the National Restaurant Association.

To push for the contract's proposed tax cuts, for instance, a group called the Coalition for America's Future was put together under the aegis of Citizens for a Sound Economy and the NFIB. For its legislative task force it turned to Mr. Andres and Kim

McKernan, who was the NFIB's chief House lobbyist but now works for Mr. Calio's firm.

On the tax bill in the House, Mr. Andres, while representing the National-American Wholesale Grocers' Association, worked with a team of about 20 lobbyists to round up undecided votes and help the leadership with the vote counting. The team held frequent meetings that generally began with exchanges of information about where various members stood on the issue.

A major focus of attention was the Blue Dogs, an informal group of about two dozen conservative Democrats representatives, including Bill K. Brewster of Oklahoma, Gary A. Conduit of California and W. J. "Billy" Tauzin of Louisiana, with whom the NFIB has close links. The NFIB lobbied the group hard, and on the final vote in April most of them backed the tax cuts.

If their intelligence indicated that some lawmakers needed more feedback from constituents about the tax cuts, Mr. Andres and Ms. McKernan would ask grass-roots groups to turn up the heat with calls and letters.

"It makes it easier for a member to cast a vote if he's hearing from his constituents," Mr. Andres said.

Verner, Liipfert's Mr. Miller co-chaired the coalition's policy group. In that role, he said, he worked closely with Ways and Means Committee members and staff in developing talking points and charts that could be used to rebut concerns about the equity of the proposed tax cuts.

Mr. Miller helped to develop a chart, which was widely used in hearings and cited in newspaper reports, showing that the share of income taxes that the wealthy pay would increase under the contract's tax provisions. "It was designed to counter the fairness and distribution argument," he said.

In some respect's, Mr. Miller's work for the coalition dovetailed with his clients' interests. Merrill Lynch & Co. Inc., a longtime client of his law firm, had a strong interest in lowering capital gains taxes, and Mr. Miller lobbied some freshman members on the issue on behalf of a capital gains coalition that Mark Bloomfield, president of the American Council for Capital Formation, had assembled.

"We basically tried to explain to members and staff that the capital gains tax cut was not just for the wealthy," Mr. Miller said.

Merrill Lynch also helped raise about $500,000 to sustain the Coalition for America's Future, and William De Reuter, one of the firm's Washington lobbyists, was a co-chairman of the coalition's finance task force.

Though the lobbyists' efforts seem to have endeared them to the Republican leadership, criticism has been mounting about the dangers posed by this collaboration of public and private interests.

"When you have a political ideology that's neatly lined up with campaign cash and influence, it's a situation in which the whole store can be given away," said Ellen Miller, executive director of the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics.

"What is really shocking is how close and how obvious the relationships are between policy and private interests."

Peter H. Stone is reporter for the National Journal, from which this article is adapted.

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