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Congress turnover hits lobbyists

Ex-aides, others are often tied to single member

– The retirement of several powerful members of Congress is being felt across the lobbying industry, in which former staffers who used their ties to the lawmakers to help build businesses are being forced to rebrand themselves or risk becoming irrelevant.

The effect is likely to be greatest among tax lobbyists, a K Street specialty that is rich with former aides to Max Baucus, D-Mont., who this month gave up his post as chairman of the Senate Finance Committee to become the U.S. ambassador to China.

But across a variety of areas, the departures from Congress – more than two dozen at last count – are prompting former Capitol Hill aides whose biographies boast of their high-level connections to try to reassure their clientele that they bring more to the job than links with their old bosses.

“What happens when your street cred is built upon your relationship with one particular member?” asked Chris Jones, a headhunter who helps place lobbyists. “Do you still have any street cred? That’s a big question.”

Beyond the Baucus network, the changes are likely to be felt most by lobbyists with ties to other outgoing chairmen, including Carl Levin, D-Mich., who leads the Senate Armed Services Committee; John D. Rockefeller, D-W.Va., who heads the Senate Commerce, Science and Transportation panel; Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, chair of the Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee; and Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., chair of the House Armed Services Committee.

“You’ve got to be able to pivot in this town,” said Dawn Levy O’Donnell, who worked under Baucus at the Finance Committee and now runs her own tax lobbying firm. Her clients, she said, “didn’t hire me to get to Baucus. They hired me because I know the issues and the process and how to navigate the committee.”

Such shifts are a part of the culture of K Street, where retirements from Congress – and defeats at the polls – can quickly reshape the power structure, increasing the value of some relationships and slashing that of others. Last month, for instance, Capitol Counsel, a leading tax lobbying firm, announced that it had hired Josh Kardon, who spent 17 years as chief of staff to Ron Wyden, D-Ore., the new chairman of the Senate Finance Committee.

At the same time, many lobbyists whose Washington careers began on Capitol Hill have remained influential long after the members they worked for have left the scene. And, despite complaints about the outsize influence of those who pass through the “revolving door,” lobbyists say their relationships with individual members matter far less than in the past because of the rapid turnover in Congress, the end of earmarks and the gridlock of recent years.

But in a tough lobbying marketplace, clients are paying close attention to the changes on Capitol Hill.

“If you’ve hired somebody who has sold themselves on their knowledge of or access to an individual, and they haven’t over the years built any other relationships, they’re likely to be sooner or later taken off the payroll,” said Will Ris, who runs the Washington office of American Airlines and has about a dozen outside lobbying firms on retainer. “That’s why they were there.”

Patrick Griffin, who served as legislative affairs director in the Clinton White House, said that when an influential lawmaker leaves the scene, there is still often a “branding blip. It’s like, ’He died and, oops, did you die too?’ ”