Politics

Analysis: 2017 Has Been Nutty for K Street, but 2018 Could Be Insane

Campaign season is soon to kick into high gear

As 2017 draws to a close, the unpredictable nature of the first year of the Trump administration could very well bleed into next year as the midterm elections heat up. (Bill Clark/CQ Roll Call file photo)

Lobbyists have — almost — survived a genuinely bonkers year.

The Trump era ushered in a maelstrom of unpredictable policy fights along with scandals that have ripped into K Street. Think it can’t get any stranger? Just wait until campaign season kicks into high gear in 2018.

The first year of the 115th Congress marked the return of recent lobbyists to the executive branch and a steady uptick in fees for the $2.5 billion paid-advocacy business as the first unified Republican government in a decade pushed health care and tax overhauls. Despite those notable bright spots for the influence profession, it’s been a turbulent stretch for the unofficial shadow branch of government.

Two storied K Street firms have fallen from once lofty perches: the former Quinn Gillespie & Associates and the Podesta Group. Lawmakers have begun to eye the technology sector with new suspicions and potentially new regulations, after revelations that Russian operatives may have used social media ads to interfere in the 2016 elections.

Even the conservative Heritage Foundation wasn’t immune from the tumult: Seemingly at an apex of its influence at the start of the Trump administration, the group’s board ousted former South Carolina Republican Sen. Jim DeMint as its chief.

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The Trump administration has flouted the norms of politics, governing and ethics, providing unstable terrain for K Street players.

And though President Donald Trump pledged to drain the swamp, in reality his team has put ex-lobbyists in positions across the administration where they make decisions affecting the industries that once paid their lucrative salaries. From the EPA to the White House, they will continue to shape policy.

Though the Trump world flouts ethics rules, special counsel Robert S. Mueller III sent a conflicting message to K Street in late October by indicting former power brokers Paul Manafort and Rick Gates on charges of violating a foreign lobbying law.

Manafort and Gates, former Trump campaign advisers, did not register as foreign agents for a Ukrainian client, according to the indictment. The Podesta Group, the longtime firm of Democratic lobbyist and mega-fundraiser Tony Podesta, has virtually shut down after being implicated in the Manafort affair. Another firm, Mercury LLC, was also involved.

“Hope you’re thriving,” was Tony Podesta’s response to inquiries about his firm’s situation.

Next year promises to be even more turbulent with control of Congress at stake. Typically, that might mean stalemate on Capitol Hill and a bonanza of fundraising requests for lobbyists.

Among the few areas where bipartisanship could take over in 2018 is a legislative response to the Manafort indictment. Senate Judiciary Chairman Charles E. Grassley of Iowa introduced a bill to toughen the foreign lobbying law. A House version has attracted bipartisan champions.

Of course, K Street has survived scandal and an ensuing overhaul of lobbying laws before, particularly in the mid-2000s when Jack Abramoff went to prison for fraud and conspiracy over his multimillion-dollar work for Native American tribes.

Longtime observers of the lobbying sector say this time feels different.

Several lobbyists, members of Congress and their aides were convicted of crimes in the Abramoff case, but the rest of institutional Washington, including the administration, adhered by and large to the existing norms. Not this time, not with the Trump administration having created a backdrop of blurry standards for ethical conduct.

“Here I think the disruption is broader,” said Burdett Loomis, a political science professor at the University of Kansas who has studied K Street for decades. “Like everything else with Trump, he’s almost completely rearranged a lot of what we think is appropriate.”

The disruption of lobbying isn’t limited to the president. In both the failed health care overhaul and the tax rewrite, lobbyists have discovered that many of their old strategies no longer work in the age of social-media mobilization.

And the rift within the GOP between the party’s populist grass roots and its traditional pro-business faction has left lobbyists with fewer allies on the Hill and diminished clout in some of the biggest fights.

Yet for all the oddities of 2017, as the year comes to a close, male-dominated K Street so far remains unscathed by the dramatic sexual harassment scandals that have rocked Hollywood, journalism and Capitol Hill.

Will that last into 2018?

Even if there are no Harvey Weinsteins in the lobbying world, K Streeters are sure to see their fortunes rise and fall in unpredictable ways next year as harassment and abuse allegations create upheaval during the midterm election campaigns.

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