In Politico, McCormick Group Principal Ivan Adler discusses the tough job market ahead for Democratic staffers looking to transition to lobbying.
By Byron Tau | July 22, 2014
Democratic staffers whose bosses lose in November may be in for more bad news in January.
Staffers leaving Capitol Hill as a result of a retirement or election loss will enter one of the tightest K Street labor markets in recent memory as firms of all sizes have struggled to gin up new business and keep existing clients amid several years of anemic growth and stalled legislation.
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“The town has changed over the last five years,” said Rich Gold, who heads up the lobbying operation at Holland & Knight. “The era of million-dollar contracts for former senators or $600,000 contracts for former House members is well past.”
Age, lack of lobbying experience and party affiliation will also make life difficult for some Democratic staffers, even for senior staffers who have paid their dues on Capitol Hill.
“I think there will be fewer chairs when the music stops than in 2008 and 2012,” said Julian Ha, who heads the government affairs and trade association practices at executive search firm Heidrick & Struggles.
Unlike previous party changes in 1994, 2006 and 2010, the downtown labor market is much weaker than it once was. Growth has been almost nonexistent for the top firms since 2011 while many K Street’s hottest shops are fairly small, single-issue boutiques focusing on issues like defense, appropriations or tech policy.
Four long-serving Democratic senators — Tom Harkin, Tim Johnson, Carl Levin and Jay Rockefeller — are stepping down in January. Those four have a total of 189 staffers on their Capitol Hill payrolls, plus additional staffers on congressional committees or working for political operations.
Another four — Mary Landrieu, Mark Pryor, Kay Hagan, Mark Begich — are top targets for Republicans. They have more than 200 staffers working in their offices, according to congressional salary records — all compiled by the website LegiStorm.
On the House side, 10 Democratic incumbents are sitting in seats rated as a “toss-up” by The Cook Political Report. The average House office has about 30 staffers on payroll — with some working in a member’s district office and even others working for the campaigns.
And about 150 Republican staffers from the Hill will be without jobs too, with the retirements of Sens. Saxby Chambliss, Mike Johanns and Tom Coburn. Add to that the fact that many long-serving Obama administration staffers will head for the exits during the president’s final two years in office.
The biggest firms are facing increasing competition from upstarts, breakaways and boutique lobbying shops. In addition, the downtown scene has become increasingly crowded with public affairs shops, digital firms and grass-roots experts all promising different approaches to advocacy other than old-school lobbying.
“The employment picture, in general, on K Street is really challenging,” said Ivan Adler, a headhunter and executive search consultant in the lobbying arena.
Between 2006 and 2007, lobbying revenues surged by $241 million, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. Between 2008 and 2009, revenues jumped an additional $200 million in anticipation of a productive Congress ready to tackle big issues.
By contrast, the boom years are now over and don’t show much signs of coming back. Overall lobbying revenues dropped about $220 million between 2010 and 2011, dropped another $20 million between 2011 and 2012 and dropped again by $8 million between 2012 and 2013.
“You can’t run away from the fact that the [Lobbying Disclosure Act] numbers are decreasing and continue to decrease and that there’s just not a heck of a lot of stuff to lobby on, frankly,” Adler said. “For the straight-out, shoe-leather lobbyist, it’s challenging. And being a Democrat in this environment is extra hard. “It just gets exacerbated when you’re in the minority.”
Democrats have long fared worse than Republicans in the K Street job market — with GOP political operatives holding more than 30 of the 50 highest-profile, in-house lobbying jobs in town. For-hire firms and lobbying practices at law firms also have traditionally been dominated more by Republicans.
Lack of experience on K Street can be another drawback for would-be lobbyists. Hiring newbie lobbyists with no client base is a risk for many firms. If they’re coming from the Hill, hires face a yearlong lobbying ban before they can work with their former colleagues in Congress, and it takes awhile for even the most ambitious person to develop a solid roster of clients.
The firm Holland & Knight has been in expansion mode — bringing on new lawyers and lobbyists at a modest clip, but its recent preference has been to hire established lobbyists who can bring clients and business on board with them.
“Most of what we are looking for are people who have guaranteed business coming with,” them, said Gold. “That’s just the nature of being conservative in what is still a shaky economy. K Street hasn’t shaken that conservative view coming out of the recession.”
And much of K Street hiring relies on personal relationships and extended alumni networks looking out for each other after a setback like the loss of a seat or a conference election […]
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