Lobbyists are preparing for the difficulty of virtually getting to know newly elected members of Congress when they come to Washington for orientation next month.
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In all, lobbyists could find themselves navigating the challenges of trying to meet new leadership, committee, agency and administration staffers in a pandemic without in-person meetings or the fundraisers that typically populate K Street’s calendar shortly after a general election.
“Like in any new Congress, there will be a rush to meet newly elected members and their staff starting as soon as the election is over through the first part of the year. The pandemic will certainly make this more challenging,” said Stu Van Scoyoc, CEO of Van Scoyoc Associates.
Newly elected members typically come to Washington in mid-November for a few frantic days of orientation, when lobbyists have the opportunity to hold events to meet them in person. There has been no final word yet on what orientation this year will look like.
“I expect, very much so in the coming months following the Nov. 3 election, that Zoom and the video conferencing will continue even though folks are very much Zoomed out,” said Andrew Kauders, managing director at Cogent Strategies. “We used to have meet-and-greets at the firm with members and new members. We are likely to transition that to Zoom so clients can meet new members virtually.”
Mary Beth Stanton, a lobbyist at Invariant, said flexibility will be key to navigating this new normal.
“Connectivity is really important — on multiple levels — in the virtual environment. Connecting new members to experts, employees, and employers in their district and state is the best way to form relationships virtually. We all need to be flexible on the ‘how’ to connect,” she said in an email.
Focusing on policy is the best way to be memorable to newly elected members in the virtual advocacy space, other lobbyists said.
“I traditionally found that the best way to get to know new members of Congress and their staff, and to maintain my own network, is to just focus on the policy. The Democrats that were elected to serve in Congress are focused on policy,” said David Thomas, a partner at Mehlman Castagnetti Rosen & Thomas.
Patrick Martin, principal at Cozen O’Connor Public Strategies, added, “whether it’s in person or at home on your computer, the best way to introduce yourself is to bring them issues they have reasons to care about. If you are credible, the relationship will develop naturally.”
In an era of anti-lobbyist sentiment among liberals, a blue sweep would mean lobbyists must be creative in getting to know new Democratic lawmakers who don’t want to associate with them. Typically, the busy K Street event calendar allows for casual interactions with these members who avoid formal meetings with lobbyists.
“A blue sweep means working harder and making sure you’re always adding value by connecting relevant members to issues or constituencies they care about,” Stanton said.
Kauders said that anti-lobbyist rhetoric is sometimes more of a campaign message that gets discarded to some extent once members are sworn in.
“As they find out, a lot of their local businesses are impacted by legislation and policy in DC and a lot of those businesses have representation in DC,” he said. “If you say you’re not going to meet with a registered lobbyist, you’re going to have a rather empty calendar.”
From K Street’s perspective, even though Biden has said he won’t accept donations from lobbyists, his tenure in Washington and long-standing connections make a Biden administration accessible.
“While any winning presidential campaign always brings new energetic and talented people to Washington, with around 4,000 political appointees in an administration, many of the people we expect would go to work in a Biden-Harris administration will have worked in Washington before,” Van Scoyoc said.
Thomas added that knowing former Democratic administration officials will open the door for new relationships in a Biden administration.
“For those of us who have been in DC for a long time, we are likely to know many of the people who would potentially serve in a Biden administration. Some of them will have worked in the Obama White House, others would have worked in the Clinton administration like myself, or have come off the Hill,” he said.
The Democratic and Republican conventions in August were the first major events for lobbyists that went from in-person to virtual. But before that, that had already scaled back from facilitating client engagement with party officials due to the pandemic.
Lobbyists, though, say they have found that virtual advocacy can lead to more efficiency and sometimes more accessibility.
“With this new virtual world we’re living in, there are efficiencies that have never existed before. People are spending less time in security lines and more time in one-on-one face time over Zoom calls,” Kauders said.
Clients who are outside the beltway are also given more opportunities to access a member without spending on travel.
“A virtual Congress will continue to breed virtual fly-ins and opportunities for those outside of Washington to get to know newly elected members of Congress in some ways,” Kauders added.
Former Obama administration officials tried to avoid the perception of being close with lobbyists, prompting many meetings, particularly at the beginning of his first term, to be conducted outside the White House. Obama also placed limitations on former lobbyists joining the administration and created hurdles to aides becoming lobbyists after leaving.
Biden is under pressure from some progressive groups to not appoint any corporate lobbyists to his transition team, Cabinet or as top aides.
“As a Democrat, I want to do everything I can to help [the Biden team] as they transition in to advance their own goals. I expect from a lobbying perspective they will have very similar rules as the Obama administration as they deal with registered lobbyists so obviously, we’ll comply with what they say,” Thomas said.