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The Life Of A Lobbyist In A Do-Nothing Congress

After casting their final votes of a session in which few laws were passed, members of Congress leave for a five-week recess.
J. Scott Applewhite
After casting their final votes of a session in which few laws were passed, members of Congress leave for a five-week recess.
The Life Of A Lobbyist In A Do-Nothing Congress

The 113th Congress has finished its first session, and lawmakers enacted fewer than 60 laws. No Congress since 1947 has done so little legislating.

That's bad news for many of Washington's lobbyists. Howard Marlowe, for one, hasn't been feeling the joy of his job.

"One of the driest periods in the 35 years that I've been lobbying," he says.

An old Washington hand, Marlowe has a small, boutique lobbying firm specializing in local infrastructure projects. His client base includes airports, shipping ports and local governments.

Marlowe & Company already took a hit when Congress swore off earmarks, the targeted money that financed many infrastructure jobs.

This year is even worse. Marlowe says congressional committees have lost interest in government programs.

"You get more press attention, more cameras, more ink time, whatever it may be, by holding an oversight hearing than you do by holding a legislative hearing on how to fix our roads or what to do to improve education," he says.

So for now, Marlowe says, his firm is branching out.

"I search for non-lobbying work," he says. "We do some policy work here for private sector, somewhat for government agencies."

Marlowe's also a former president of what, until this fall, was the American League of Lobbyists. Members voted for an image makeover, and now it's the Association of Government Relations Professionals — another sign of the times.

But the pain of 2013 isn't evenly divided. Earmark specialists like Marlowe are hurt, and so are lobbyists employed by financially strapped law firms.

But other lobbyists say they've got more than enough to do.

Tom Susman, head lobbyist for the American Bar Association and a student of the lobbying business, says this year had opportunities to build relationships, plan ahead and do plenty of other lobbying work.

"Lobbying is a lot more than just spending time on Capitol Hill," he says. "Coordinating and building coalitions, working on arguments and gathering data, drafting, working with constituent groups, grassroots, local leaders, interested industries."

According to the numbers, clients are spending less on Congressional and executive-branch lobbying than they did a year ago. Third-quarter revenues among registered lobbyists are about 4 percent lower than the same period last year — although many others are not registered.

More broadly, lobbying expenditures are down about 10 percent from 2010 — but that's 10 percent down from the biggest year on record, the year of the Affordable Care Act, the Dodd-Frank financial reforms and other heavily lobbied legislation.

The bill for all that surpassed $3.6 billion. For 2013, total reported lobbying expenditures could easily hit $3 billion.

American University professor James Thurber says the numbers don't tell the whole story.

"If you look at the ads in all the specialized media and elsewhere, there's a lot of activity going on," Thurber says.

Lobbyists are concentrating more on executive branch agencies, where regulations are written, he says. Capitol Hill has turned into a place to play defense, he adds.

There is talk around the Capitol of a new cooperative spirit, inspired by the budget deal. Then again, 2014 is the midterm election year, and elections usually take priority over lawmaking.

"The easiest way to make money as a lobbyist in Washington, D.C., is to stop things," Thurber says. "When you have a do-nothing Congress and you're lobbying for the status quo — you don't want something new to happen — it's pretty easy to win."

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Peter Overby has covered Washington power, money, and influence since a foresighted NPR editor created the beat in 1994.
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