Lobbyists scramble for access in Trump era

Lobbyists scramble for access in Trump era
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With President Trump yet to fill top positions in his administration, lobbyists are increasingly reaching into the federal bureaucracy to advocate for their clients. 

While lobbyists have always cultivated contacts within federal agencies and departments, those relationships have become more important than ever before due to the slow pace of the transition.

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The ornate offices that would go to senior agency officials are even being used as meeting rooms, according to Stewart Verdery, a lobbyist for Monument Policy Group. He recently met with two staffers in an office meant for an agency’s deputy secretary.

“It’s a great office with a great view,” Verdery told The Hill. “Why go into a windowless conference room when no one is using it?”

The Trump administration started with the monumental task of appointing people to more than 4,000 positions, 1,200 of which have to be confirmed by the Senate.

Of the positions requiring Senate confirmation, The Washington Post has identified 553 that are of top importance. Of those jobs, 511 are vacant and without a nominee, lagging behind the pace of President Obama’s nominations at the same time in 2009.

The vacancies through the Trump administration have made it difficult to know where to turn on policy matters, nearly a dozen lobbyists told The Hill. Most spoke on the condition of anonymity to speak freely about their work.

“It makes it a lot harder because you have clients who are anxious and don’t want to be left out of conversations,” said one Republican lobbyist who works for clients across various industries. “You’re seeing all these corporate and union photo-ops at the White House, and some of them are saying, ‘Why are we not in there?’ ”

Trump has even hinted that he is deliberately slow-walking his appointments to the executive branch because the positions are “unnecessary to have.”

“I look at some of the jobs, and it’s people over people over people. I say what do all these people do? You don’t need all those jobs,” Trump told Fox News’s Brian Kilmeade last month.

While several lobbyists told The Hill they have had productive meetings with both White House and agency officials since Trump took office, there is a lot of uncertainty.

Other lobbyists say the uncertain power structure between Trump’s inner circle and other departments presents an additional hurdle.

“Everybody is having a challenge getting to the right people. Figuring out who the decisionmaker is is a large part of the challenge,” said a second lobbyist who worked in the George W. Bush White House.

The lobbyist says he has been bounced around between the different offices in the White House when trying to make contact.

“You may think an issue is part of domestic policy, so you go to [the Domestic Policy Council] — but you’re told, no, actually, on this one, you need to get to [the National Economic Council] or you need to get to [Jared] Kushner,” the lobbyist said, referring to Trump’s son-in-law and senior adviser. 

“It’s opaque. Having talked to people inside the White House, it’s not just opaque to people on the outside, it’s opaque to the people on the inside.”

However, as staffing decisions continue to move forward, many on K Street say they are encouraged — or, as one lobbyist put it, “pleasantly surprised” — by who is getting jobs.

Some agencies — including the Department of Health and Human Services (HHS), which is helmed by former Rep. Tom Price (R-Ga.) — are pulling staff from Capitol Hill.

“I know a lot of folks from the Hill — particularly from the House — at HHS, and they have been very responsive. I’ve been impressed with how responsive they’ve been given how short-staffed they are,” a third Republican lobbyist said. 

The White House’s unconventional approach to governing has, in some ways, made it easier for lobbyists to work with officials. Some of the lobbyists told The Hill that administration officials are open to input and advice.

“It’s frustrating that the government isn’t populated, but I don’t come home and bang my head against the wall because the Trump administration isn’t accessible,” said a fourth Republican lobbyist who is also an active fundraiser. 

“In many ways, they can be easier to deal with than the Bush administration, which at times could be very disciplined and overly cautious,” he continued.

With so many seeking access to the new administration, firms staffed with Trump campaign or transition operatives are popping up in Washington. Established firms are getting in on the act as well, hiring people who worked on Trump’s campaign and on the transition team.

“If we’ve had a problem, we can pretty much go to him,” said Kathryn Lehman, a partner at Holland & Knight, referring to Scott Mason, a senior policy adviser at the firm. “He’s kept us in the game on this stuff.”

Mason, who worked on Trump’s campaign and in his administration transition, joined Holland & Knight in January.

“Phone numbers and email addresses change, but the relationships endure,” Mason told The Hill. “We had a great team on the campaign and we had a great team on the transition. That’s the way many of us still look at it. We’re still on Team Trump, and we’re trying to move the agenda forward.”

Lobbyists report that some people they are meeting with in the administration are in temporary positions at agencies until nominees get confirmed or make it through the background check process. But those meetings can still reap dividends down the road.

“I’m doing this meeting at Commerce next week, and I’m telling my client, ‘You should expect nothing out of this meeting except making a friend who may be able to help you navigate the Commerce Department as he gets more settled,’ ” the first Republican lobbyist said.

Some lobbyists noted the many actions Trump has taken in office — such as freezing federal regulations and starting to roll back Obama initiatives — are things that their clients already support.

A fifth Republican lobbyist said his clients aren’t clamoring for meetings with Trump officials. 

“Fiduciary rule is a great example — just let it happen,” he said, referring to Trump’s move to delay an Obama-era rule for investment advisers.

“When you’re winning, you don’t need to set yourself on fire.”