Behind the Senate Majority, Former GOP Staffers Find New Influence

Nov. 5, 2014 – 1:00 p.m.

Behind the Senate Majority, Former GOP Staffers Find New Influence

By Kate Ackley, CQ Roll Call

A Senate under the GOP’s grip will give an elite network of downtown power brokers with close ties to incoming leaders and pivotal committee chairmen an inside track in shaping the chamber’s direction on policy.

These insiders work as lobbyists, think tank analysts, corporate executives and communications operatives, but back on Capitol Hill their former bosses or political pals regard them as consiglieres who can provide high-level strategy, procedural and policy expertise.

The incoming Senate Republican majority, though stocked with political veterans, may also rely on a network of outsiders to help them craft deals and to maximize their new in-charge status. And being plugged in — with the presumptive leadership slate of Mitch McConnell of Kentucky and John Cornyn of Texas as well as the incoming chairmen for some of the most plum committees such as Banking, Finance and others — can provide an opportunity to influence the process in big as well as subtle ways.   

“You’re almost two people,” said lobbyist David Hoppe, a former top aide to Trent Lott when the Mississippi Republican was Senate majority leader. “You are an individual who has clients for whom you’re doing work. At the same time, you’re a person who has worked up on the Hill, has friendships and knows all these people, sat with them in all these meetings for years working together on different things.”

Although registered federal lobbyists must disclose their clients, the disclosures don’t typically capture the lawmakers they meet with or spell out the ways they may influence policy from behind the scenes. James Thurber, who runs American University’s Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, said lobbyists can even exert influence over gavel races. But such work — or friendly advice — is almost never made public.

“There are groups and strong individuals who are close to people and have a great deal of influence, but it’s nontransparent,” Thurber said. “It’s like watching the Vatican select a new pope.”

Hoppe, who most recently was chief of staff to then-Sen. Jon Kyl, R-Ariz., said information is traded both ways as lawmakers and aides are “starved for knowledge, too” about what outside groups are thinking.

Sheila Krumholz, who runs the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics, said former aides, top campaign donors and longtime friends, get priority access to policy meetings on the Hill. Those in the inner circles of GOP leaders and committee chiefs may see a boost in their client portfolios and their clout rise within their own organizations.

“And the influence they could have, I think, could be profound and immediate,” she said. “There are likely lists of policies that have been thwarted for the last eight years, and the potential for movement will naturally spur activity.”

McConnell, who was first elected to the Senate in 1984, has a long roster of former aides and outside advisers, including Steven Law, president of GOP SuperPAC American Crossroads. Law managed McConnell’s first reelection campaign, served as his chief of staff in the 1990s and later worked as executive director of the National Republican Senatorial Committee under McConnell.

Other former top McConnell aides who are downtown include: Billy Piper, a lobbyist at all-Republican shop of Fierce, Isakowitz & Blalock; Janet Mullins Grissom, a former in-house lobbyist for Ford Motor Co. now with Peck Madigan Jones; Kyle Simmons of the Simmons and Russell Group; Hunter Bates of the Bates Capitol Group. Former McConnell Deputy Chief of Staff Rohit Kumar is with PWC and came off his lobbying ban earlier this year.

The circle of former aides to Cornyn — McConnell’s expected No. 2 — includes Rob Jesmer of FPI Strategies and Singer Bonjean’s Brian Walsh, who spent eight years with Cornyn on the Hill and at the NRSC. Matt Johnson, executive vice president at McBee Strategic, was Cornyn’s chief counsel.

In addition to former aides who are downtown, numerous former GOP senators have set up in the influence business — Lott, who is with Squire Patton Boggs; former Budget Chairman Judd Gregg of New Hampshire, who co-chairs the Fix the Debt Coalition; Don Nickles of Oklahoma, who runs the Nickles Group; and Gordon Smith of Oregon, president of the National Association of Broadcasters, among others. Those ex-lawmakers would have clout with many of their party’s leaders and rank-and-file.

Customized Panels

For all the power the chamber’s new majority leadership team will command, much of the policy agenda will percolate up from the committees. And those with tight ties with those who hold the gavel can make an imprint on the panels.

“The chairmen, they set the tone of the committees,” said Scott Reed, a confident of Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., who is expected to take charge of the Armed Services panel. “Each chairman picks and chooses a set of issues that he or she is going to focus on.”

That set of issues can have a huge impact, especially for the clients of consulting firms such as Reed’s Chesapeake Enterprises. “Sometimes it’s important to be on the list, and sometimes it’s important not to be on the list,” he said.

McCain’s downtown network also includes a collection of former Commerce Committee aides such as Lee Dunn, who is in-house at Google’s Washington operation, and Pablo Chavez, who is vice president of public policy for LinkedIn.

People in McCain’s network say he relies on a tight-night group for advice on military and foreign affairs. An ex-aide in the mix includes Richard Fontaine, who is president of the Center for a New American Security.

Senate Banking, which sets the rules for Wall Street and shapes housing policy, will get enormous attention under its new leadership. Sen. Richard C. Shelby, the Alabama Republican who previously chaired the committee, is expected to reclaim the gavel — giving a long roster of his former aides and close associates an in.

Lendell Porterfield, a banking and securities lobbyist at Porterfield Lowenthal Fettig & Sears, who worked on the committee under Shelby, represents a lineup of clients who will have business before the panel. G. Stewart Hall, chairman of the lobby shop Crossroads Strategies, got his start on the Hill as Shelby’s legislative director. Doug Nappi, a lobbyist and legal adviser, is another former Shelby aide who is now downtown, while Shelby alum Mark Calabria is director of financial regulation studies at the Cato Institute.

Likely Senate Appropriations Chairman Thad Cochran, R-Miss., has praised former Mississippi Gov. Haley Barbour, who runs his BGR Group lobby shop, for helping him pull out a victory in a primary that nearly cost Cochran his seat in the Senate.

Though Barbour is considered something of a counsel to most of the Senate’s GOP leaders, he is especially close with Cochran.

Hunter Moorhead, a lobbyist with Crossroads Strategies, was an appropriations policy adviser to Cochran. Another former Cochran aide, Martha Scott Poindexter, serves as vice president of government and industry affairs with Bunge North America.

Missy Edwards, who runs Missy Edwards Strategies, got her start on the Hill working for Cochran; she also worked for McConnell.

Sen. Orrin G. Hatch, the Utah Republican poised to take the Finance gavel, has produced dozens and dozens of ex-aides who have remained around Washington, including a recent former Chief of Staff Michael Kennedy, vice president of global government relations and public policy for software firm VMWare. Kennedy’s one-year lobbying ban will be up mid-way next year. Another former top Hatch aide is Jace Johnson, an in-house lobbyist with Adobe.

Other ex-aides to Hatch include Robert Dibblee, senior vice president of government relations for the National Association of Real Estate Investment Trusts; Evan Liddiard, senior policy representative for federal taxation at the National Association of Realtors; and Antonia Ferrier of Forbes-Tate.

Liddiard said his one-time boss has “long been interested in tax reform and especially now because he sees the tax code getting worse and worse.”

Hatch insiders said the senator also likes to get the views of Douglas Holtz-Eakin, a former Congressional Budget Office director and current president of the American Action Forum, on tax and finance issues.

“This is a town that is totally built on relationships,” noted K Street recruiter Ivan Adler of the McCormick Group. “If they’re close to these people — McConnell and the chairmen of these money committees — they automatically have a power boost.”

Source: CQ News

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