Trent Lott is tired of being stereotyped. It's two weeks after the election, and Lott is at a Marriott hotel in Washington, D.C., in order to address the annual forum of the American League of Lobbyists. The profession, of course, took a beating from both presidential candidates during the campaign that just finished. "This year was extremely tough," laments Dave Wenhold, the group's incoming president. "We're worn down, and they've been slapping us around, ... and many lobbyists won't speak up for themselves." But Trent Lott will. The former Senate majority leader--and current head of a lobbying firm he started with fellow ex-senator John Breaux--is here to do some consciousness-raising. "I was told, in this new life, what you do is keep your mouth shut and lay low," Lott is telling the crowd. "But I was highly offended by what Congress and the campaign were saying, and I wanted to step up and speak up." As his speech wears on, Lott seems to warm to his role as the Harvey Milk of lobbyists. "Ethics lobbying reform--what a disgrace," he declares. Later, unveiling a gigantic photo of the First Amendment on the stage, he points to the section that describes the right to petition and proceeds to quote James Madison's treatise on organized factions. Lobbyists, he explains, are democracy's conduits of information. "They can represent children, environmental groups, shrimpers, nurses--you name it!"
Lott is not the only lobbyist who is refusing to be embarrassed by his professional identity. "I was giving a speech once, and I was introduced as a 'government relations consultant,'" says one speaker at the meeting, Doug Bennett. "I told him, 'I'm a lobbyist!' and then he said, 'You want me to say that in front of all of these people?' It's ridiculous. We should not be ashamed of what we do." Another speaker, Linda Dooley, put it this way: "I yearn for the day that my lobbyist friends can look their mothers in the eye and say, 'I am a lobbyist,' without having to explain anything."
If the American League of Lobbyists has its way, that day will come sooner rather than later. With a reform-minded president arriving in town and promising to limit their sway (earlier this year, Obama described Washington as "a place where good ideas go to die ... because lobbyists crush them with their money and their influence"), lobbyists are desperate for a speedy makeover. Bolstering their own sense of self-worth is helpful, of course, but it is merely a start. Lobbyists now find themselves engaged in a frenetic bid to convince official Washington that, far from being the greedy corporate hucksters of popular imagination, they are actually a misunderstood band of idealists and wonks.
In truth, this effort at rebranding began not on November 4 but rather two years ago, when Democrats retook Congress. During the heyday of the Bush administration and the Republican majority on the Hill, industry lobbyists found natural allies in government. Already in ideological harmony with the politicians they were trying to influence, corporate lobbyists didn't need to make a case so much as nurture a mutually beneficial relationship. Hence the lavish courtship rituals of someone like Jack Abramoff.
That started to change after November 2006. Because of the ideological divide separating lobbyists from many Democrats, the former were now more likely to resort to actual arguments in the hope of advancing their agendas. This--combined with new restrictions enacted by the Democratic majority on what lobbyists could buy for Hill staffers and congressmen--meant that lobbyists suddenly found it more advantageous to portray themselves as serious policy nerds than as backslapping corporate lackeys. One lobbyist, formerly a senior Democratic Hill staffer, describes how lobbyists no longer feel like they're paying a social visit when they meet with legislative aides: "It's like being an advocate before a judge, instead of a schmoozer and a friend."
It was during this transition that Rick Kessler, a top Democratic aide, was recruited to join a bipartisan lobbying firm that specializes in telecom, energy, and environmental policy. The former chief of staff to House Energy and Commerce Committee Chairman John Dingell, Kessler is as fluent in the intricacies of carbon-capture technology as any energy wonk now on the Hill. And he is emblematic of the kind of lobbyist that is currently in high demand--top-level Democratic staffers who can retool their arguments to fit a hands-on governing agenda. "The 'wine, dine, and whine about an issue' lobbying is gone," says Kessler, now president of Dow Lohnes Government Strategies. His firm is closely monitoring the effect of the Regional Greenhouse Gas Initiative on East Coast utility companies, the development of the national electric grid, and the support of cap-and-trade legislation by some of the country's leading natural-gas companies. "We're very policy-oriented people," he says. "And we are suited for the future."
There's no doubt that access and relationships continue to matter. Still, with Obama promising major investments in energy and health care, among other areas, many lobbying shops are newly eager to cast themselves as repositories of the kind of expertise necessary to make ambitious government programs work.
This is, first and foremost, a clever means of improving their damaged standing with elected officials. While it may be a bit of a stretch to think that Obama will treat K Street like a giant policy shop, lobbyists are scrambling to give the impression that they are as conversant in regulatory policy as any liberal think-tank staffer--and, therefore, indispensable to the legislative process. Ironically, Obama's decision to limit the ability of lobbyists to serve in his administration may boost this strategy. "If [lobbyists] cannot serve this transition and the administration in their own areas of expertise," Kessler assures me, then Obama officials are "going to need to consult people on the outside"--that is, lobbyists.
And recasting themselves as policy mavens isn't just a smart way for lobbyists to justify their existence to skeptical politicians. It's also a good way to sell themselves to clients. "Finally, my nerdiness can pay off," says Elizabeth Moeller, a lobbyist at Pillsbury Winthrop Shaw Pittman. "Many in the renewable-energy sector, for instance, don't want to miss the boat--and they see it as a big boat."
To be sure, the shift in tone from lobbyists doesn't mean the nature of their profession has changed. Lobbying still entails trying to curry favor, and money is still one of the most obvious ways to do that. While Obama wouldn't accept campaign contributions from lobbyists, plenty of other politicians do--and lobbyists aren't about to stop donating. In fact, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, they gave more in this election cycle than they've ever given before. Plus, even as the ethics rules enacted by Democrats encourage some lobbyists to burnish their geek credentials, those same rules have also--by limiting what lobbyists can do to woo lawmakers--heightened the value of insider connections.
At the same time, it's clear that a self-consciously earnest brand of wonkishness is now in vogue on K Street. True, it may just be a new means to the same old end. But it does, at the very least, give the whole enterprise a slightly more respectable feel. And, for lobbyists who have gotten used to hearing their profession disparaged as a matter of political routine, that may be reason enough to have a little more pride the next time they look their mothers in the eye.
Suzy Khimm is a reporter-researcher at The New Republic.