WASHINGTON — President Trump promised to drain the special-interest swamp in Washington, but the city’s lobbyists expect boom times ahead as corporate America gears up for a Republican-controlled capital and learns to grapple with a chief executive willing to target individual companies for praise and scorn.
After years of partisan gridlock in Washington, Trump and congressional Republicans are moving to dismantle Obama-era regulations and some of the biggest legislation of the last eight years, including the Affordable Care Act and the so-called Dodd-Frank law that brought new federal oversight of the financial sector after the 2008 financial crisis.
At the same time, Republicans are proposing a raft of their own proposals. Trump, for instance, has promised a $1 trillion plan to rebuild and expand roads and other infrastructure over a decade. House Republicans want to rewrite much of the tax system.
“Suddenly, the possibility of an overhaul of the entire tax code is in play versus years ago when the question was: What can you accomplish in a divided government?” said David Schnittger, a longtime aide to former House Speaker John Boehner and now a spokesman for the public-policy practice at Squire Patton Boggs.
For companies and interest groups, a unified Republican government in Washington marks a “once-in-a-generation opportunity to advance your agenda,” said Matt Johnson, a top Republican lobbyist at the powerhouse Podesta Group.
The frenzied start to the year represents a dramatic turnaround for the lobbying world.
In recent years, the slow pace of legislation on Capitol Hill and the economic downtown that followed the financial crisis, helped slow lobbying activity. The number of registered lobbyists fell significantly — from 14,822 lobbyists in 2007 to just 11,143 in 2016, according to the non-partisan Center for Responsive Politics, which tracks money in politics.
“You are going to see spending up this year,” said Paul Miller, a lobbyist who serves as president of the industry’s trade group, the National Institute for Lobbying & Ethics. Miller, whose clients include small businesses and health care and transportation interests, said his “pace has been frenetic” in the first three weeks of the Trump presidency.
Blizzard of executive actions
Companies are scrambling to cope with Trump’s moves, ranging from his blizzard of executive actions — totaling 26 as of late Thursday morning — to his penchant for tweeting his displeasure with individual corporations.
In one of the latest examples, Trump on Wednesday pushed out a tweet, slamming Nordstrom for dropping the fashion line of his daughter, Ivanka Trump, raising new questions about his commitment to separate his presidency from his family’s business interests.
The real-estate and branding magnate also has positioned himself as deal-maker in chief, willing to directly negotiate with firms, such as Indiana-based Carrier Corp., to boost American workers and products. On Wednesday, after meeting with Trump at the White House, Intel chief executive Brian Krzanich said the chip maker planned to move ahead with plans to finish a factory in Arizona, adding 3,000 jobs.
“We’ve never had a president like this before,” Miller said. “To be polite about it, he’s an in-your-face kind of leader. If he doesn’t like what you are doing, you may pay for it in a tweet or a public comment in a press conference.
Harlan Loeb, who plots crisis communications for companies at PR giant Edelman, said 30% of his calls in the last two weeks have come from clients who are seeking strategies on how to cope with potential administration actions that could endanger their bottom lines.
Loeb said the firm is working with companies to game out scenarios should they become the focus of a Trump tweet or executive move.
Among the questions clients should ask themselves, he said: Does the administration’s action affect their core business or a key part of their corporate identity, such as a long-standing commitment to addressing climate change? In addition, how do their employees expect the company to respond?
The Podesta Group’s Johnson said his firm also is working with corporations to “anticipate where criticism might come from next.”
Johnson, whose clients include tech, telecommunications and energy companies, said he has arranged client meetings with Trump officials, whom he described as “receptive and accessible.” He would not disclose clients’ names.
“The secret here is taking the open door and walking right in and explaining why what you are doing is good for the American worker and the American people,” Johnson said. “Rather than fearing tweets, let’s get ahead of it and tell our story effectively.”
Miller said companies also are learning to push back on Trump, citing the dozens of Silicon Valley companies that banded together to help challenge Trump’s immigration ban in court. “They are starting to figure out that ‘We don’t have to go along to get along here,’ ” he said.
Other advocacy groups are trying fresh tactics to get their messages to the president.
For instance, the liberal political group VoteVets decided to target Trump’s healthy television-watching appetite. The organization, which objects to moves to dismantle the Affordable Care Act and opposes Trump’s temporary travel ban from several predominantly Muslim countries, began advertising on MSNBC’s Morning Joe this week.
“We know he’s watching, and we can speak to him directly,” said Jon Soltz, the group’s chairman and an Iraq War veteran. “We have a theory in the military. We always say, ‘Don’t fight the last war.’ Trump is a new battlefield, and you need to fight him in a different way.”
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