Lobbyists Look Forward to Meeting New Administration

November 29, 1992|By PETER H. STONE

On Election Day, an eerie silence descended on the offices of Washington's top lobbying, law and public relations firms. With Bill Clinton holding a strong lead in pre-election polls, the clout merchants jetted off to Arkansas to celebrate with him.

The cast of characters partying in Little Rock that night provided a vivid tableau of what awaits the new administration in Washington. Collectively, they represented dozens of leading U.S. corporations and foreign interests.

Even the lobbying firm of Black, Manafort Stone & Kelly Public Affairs Co. -- the epitome of Republican political correctness during the Reagan-Bush years -- dispatched partner Peter Kelly to Little Rock. Mr. Kelly is one of the few Democrats at the firm, but not for long: Black, Manafort is shopping for new Democratic lobbyists.

After 12 long years of Republican rule, there are plenty of pent-up demands in Washington. Mr. Clinton's promise of an activist agenda, with more federal spending financed by higher taxes on the rich and foreign corporations, has put K Street in a state of high alert.

Mr. Clinton has vowed to curb the influence of special interests. He has promised to place tougher lobbying restrictions on top administration officials who leave the government, and he has told members of his transition team that they must wait at least six months before lobbying any agency that they helped make plans for.

But reining in the special interests won't be easy. Many lobbyists and interest groups have close ties to the president-elect and have played important roles in his campaign organization. Some of the links go back to childhood: Thomas F. (Mack) McLarty III, a boyhood friend of Clinton's who now runs Arkla Inc., an Arkansas natural gas company, and serves on Mr. Clinton's transition team. He threw an election-night party at Arkla headquarters in Little Rock.

Lobbyists played a central role in the Clinton campaign, starting at the top: His campaign chairman was Mickey Kantor, a lawyer-lobbyist in the Los Angeles-based law firm of Manatt, Phelps, Phillips & Kantor. Mr. Kantor's law partner, Charles T. Manatt, rounded up bankers' endorsements for Clinton. The teams that developed position papers for the Clinton campaign were loaded with lobbyists. And Democratic National Committee DNC) chairman Ronald H. Brown is a partner in the Washington lobbying firm of Patton, Boggs & Blow.

Political money also served as a channel between interest groups and the Clinton camp. The Clinton fund-raising operation helped the Democratic Party raise $29 million in "soft" contributions from corporations, unions and big individual donors of mid-October. ("Soft" money is contributed to the party rather than an individual candidate, skirting limits on contributions and campaign spending.) Many of these big donors had previously given little money to the Democratic Party; they didn't open their wallets to the Democrats until mid-summer, when Mr. Clinton surged ahead of President Bush in the polls.

While there will be some clear winners and losers under Mr. Clinton, the arrival of a new administration is good news for almost everyone on K Street.

"These guys' incomes will all go up because all their clients will be nervous," said Pat Choate, a consultant who has been a leading critic of Japanese influence-buying in Washington. "For most lobbyists the most profitable times are those of chaos and change." Mr. Clinton will "end the recession in Washington," Mr. Choate predicted.

Trade associations may be among the biggest beneficiaries, mounting membership drives and making special fee assessments to counter Clinton initiatives.

"This Congress and the promises that Clinton made means an almost automatic defensiveness from the corporate community on most issues it faces," Tom C. Korologos, a longtime Republican lobbyist with the Washington lobbying firm of Timmons and Co. Inc., said. "That means a lot of heavy lifting to educate the Congress and the administration."

Mr. Korologos listed health care, the environment, taxes and safety as issues that are likely to generate business for lobbyists. "Republican firms flourish" under Democratic administrations because corporate America is looking for all the help it can get, he said.

Moreover, Clinton-watchers say that his penchant for building consensus and listening to all sides of an argument will create plenty of openings for interest groups to exert pressure.

"This Clinton group is coming in with a wider set of Rolodexes," Mr. Korologos said. "They won't have the same bunker mentality that the Carter administration did. Ipso facto, there'll be more openness and receptivity in the beginning."

The question, though, is whether Mr. Clinton is prepared for the onslaught.

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