Letter From DC: Lobbying, Lexuses and Revolving Doors

By , Columnist

A multimillion dollar lobbying battle is brewing this summer in DC that will have a profound impact on the users of Crackberries and IPhones - and Twitter, Facebook and other apps that support them.  It might fuel new innovations in new media utility, or drive up your monthly bill, or both via the creation of a wireless duopoly for the U.S.' 303 million mobile phone users.  It's also a boon for the DC Lobby Industry.

AT&T's proposed $39 billion acquisition of T-Mobile is the latest exercise in Washingtonian economic stimulus: lobbying "investments."  Already, AT&T has spent nearly $6.8 million during the first quarter, spreading the retainers among the 31 lobbying and law firms registered to represent it.  Expenditures likely will total more than $15 million by the end of the year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics and the Sunlight Foundation. 

And while the Wall Street Journal will work itself into a froth over the pro-business implications of the deal ("Star Trek's Tri-Corders Within Reach; Transporter Next?"), and Mother Jones will bemoan the next corporate evil ("Mobile Phones; The People's Oppressor?"), there's a whole mess of Washingtonians licking their chops to the largess soon coming their way.

There's a tangible trickledown effect that occurs during Washington's lengthy and multi-jurisdictional consideration of large corporate deals.  Infusions of new cash to lobbyists and lawyers prompt a flurry of Lexus leases; reservations at DC's restaurants become harder to garner; and personal shoppers at Pentagon City's Nordstrom seem to get busier.  For the truly fortuitous, there could be a residence upgrade from Arlington to McLean. 

Hill, Cabinet and agency staffers tied to the AT&T/T-Mobile review start polishing up the resumes. "Better WD-40 that revolving door," a House Commerce Committee staffer smiled through dollar-a-Bud Lite night at a Capitol Hill watering hole. "Cash out time."

"You can Revolving_Door.jpgbe sure that there will be the expectation by government types of future opportunities available in the private sector," explained a Washington headhunter. Won't that unduly influence a sober appraisal of the deal?  "Of course not," he laughed with a wink. "It's all about righteous public policy." 

One need not look further than the most recent precedent of taking care of friends practiced masterfully by the industry leader in one of the most powerful and consequential industries - media and entertainment.

The latest beneficiary of the revolving door was former FCC Commissioner Meredith Attwell Baker, who will start at Comcast-NBC Universal Monday to be senior VP of its DC Office, just four months after she and three other Commissioners approved the merger of Comcast and NBC Universal. 

Even some of your more aggressive free-marketers reached for the Pepto-Bismol.  "It looks almost as bad as all those retired colonels over at the defense contractors," groaned a company rep. 

In-house and association work is great if you can get it in the senior ranks.  It's lucrative, not incredibly taxing as eager 20-somethings and contracted-out firms (staffed by your former government underlings) handle the grunt work of event planning and the requisite filing and testimony prep.  A hefty expense account is provided to diversify beyond The Palm and explore the burgeoning restaurant scene around Gallery Place and Barrack's Row. 

"The work is all about relationships and strategery," explained an industry association executive. The only challenge is explaining to your CEOs why DC isn't as myopic about their corporate interests as the CEOs are. 

Baker will report to Kyle McSlarrow, who joined Comcast after serving as the National Cable and Telecommunications Association's President and CEO. At NCTA, he lobbied the FCC on behalf of the NCTA's largest and most influential member - Comcast - during the consideration of its merger.  That job offer took less than two months.

McSlarrow's replacement?  Former FCC Chairman Michael Powell  - and coincidentally the Center for Responsive Politics' "Featured Revolver" - who likely will assume most of McSlarrow's $2.45 million compensation package.

Who might be on those strategery conference calls?  Former FCC Commissioner Rachelle Chong, who served with Powell before returning to her native California as Comcast California's Regional Vice President of Government. 

McSlarrow, Powell and Baker will strategerize on how to dole out the more than $10 million Comcast and NCTA will spend on lobbying in 2011, according to CRP.  That's a lot of fine-dining lunches and Lexuses. Nothing like a finely-tuned distribution of campaign cash to get those phone calls returned.

The head of AT&T's DC shop, Jim Cicconi, is a DC veteran, undefeated on merger approvals, and one of Washington's most powerful lobbyists, in any sector.  And he's got the same mission as Comcast-NBC Universal: figure out how to control the pipe and the content without regulatory interference. 

Hold onto your 4G handsets.  It might not be just the delinquents on the Metro that will be trying to rip off your smart phones.  This boost will be legal by well-dressed, well-fed Washingtonians with re-badged Toyotas.

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Marc Osgoode Smith has covered – and participated in - Washington DC policy circles for more than two decades as a journalist covering media and as an association and think tank executive. Smith now enjoys his role as a “cultural observer” of DC Politics and the people that engage in them.

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