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Debt-ceiling deal sets off lobbying frenzy

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By Chris Frates
National Journal

The so-called super committee that would be responsible for cutting $1.5 trillion from the federal deficit is poised to create a new class on K Street: The Superlobbyists.

Within 14 days of the debt-ceiling compromise becoming law, Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, House Speaker John Boehner, and Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi must each appoint three members to a bipartisan panel of 12 lawmakers tasked with goring sacred cows.

The scale of cuts is immense.

"That's an enormous number. I've never seen anything like that in my lifetime, so I can't compare it to anything," said Republican financial-services lobbyist Sam Geduldig. "My guess is, there will be losers and those who are held harmless. Winning is being held harmless, and I think there may be a lot of people who will pay to try to be held harmless."

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When the Divine Dozen are named, it will lead "to the emergence of a pack of superlobbyists who will have access to those members" and who can try to protect clients from the carnage, said Democratic consultant David Di Martino. That's because with only six members from each party on the committee, influencing the super committee will largely be an inside game with Democratic and Republican lobbyists working their respective lawmakers.

Each appointment will be closely watched for the signals it sends about the direction of the super committee, more formally known as the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction.

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"The bubbling, No. 1 question in the last 24 hours for downtown is, 'Who are the 12 going to be?' Because that will shape what the super committee will or will not tackle," Republican lobbyist Kirk Blalock said.

A Democratic insider put the concern more bluntly: "If you're a company with a major stake in what's going to happen in the super committee and you have a team that has no connection to those members, you're probably going to be looking for additional help"—an observation that may turn out to be a colossal understatement.

Still, many lobbyists are only cautiously optimistic that business on K Street will boom. They point out that because no one yet knows how the committee will work, they can't say how lobbyists will be able to influence the panel's work.

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Geduldig said that the closest comparison he can draw to the upcoming  action is K Street's furious push to pass the Bush tax cuts. But, he noted, "this is different. That was everyone pulling on an oar together. This could be everyone throwing everyone else under the bus."

And K Street won't have much time to figure it all out. The committee must hold its first meeting no later than 45 days after the legislation is signed into law. It is authorized to hold hearings, produce witnesses, take testimony, and administer oaths. Standing congressional committees will be able to make recommendations to the super committee, but they must file them by October 14. The super committee's final legislative recommendations are due no later than November 23, and Congress must act on them by December 23.

"I can't even imagine how (freaking) insane it will be and how needy these clients will be," one lobbyist said. "I can only imagine the headaches it will cause. And I'm talking about my existing clients, not new clients."

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Like-minded interests are also likely to form coalitions to exert grassroots and in-district pressure on the Divine Dozen. One group will surely be the health care industry. The bill caps Medicare cuts at 2 percent, but it requires those decreases to be shouldered by doctors, hospitals, and other providers—cash-rich targets that will likely employ armies of lobbyists on the Hill.

And after Congress spent most of the year debating whether to fund the government and raise the debt limit, the tumult that the super committee could create between now and the end of the year led one Democratic lobbyist to quip, "The upside is there is finally going to be a lot more business lobbying Congress."

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