Fiscal Crises Paralyze Congress, Flood K Street With Cash

Lobbyists may be the only ones benefitting from all the Hill’s self-made apocalypses.

Jonathan Ernst / Getty Images

WASHINGTON — Legislators responsible for making sure the government functions in some approximation of smoothness may hate the endless string of manufactured fiscal crises facing the nation, but for lobbyists on K Street, the dysfunction is great for business.

Much has been made of the strain the fiscal cliff and debt ceiling have placed on high-profile issues like immigration reform and gun control. But it’s also having a serious impact on the basic functions of governing, ranging from the annual appropriations process to a reauthorization of critical agriculture legislation.

In one illustrative example, House Appropriations Committee Chairman Hal Rogers had hoped to move an omnibus spending package shortly after the 2012 election that would fund the government through the end of the fiscal year in September. The measure had buy-in from Democrats and Republicans in both chambers. But Congressional leadership simply wasn’t in a position to do the hard work of getting a massive spending package passed before the fiscal cliff fight kicked off.

“I had hoped we’d replace [the current stop gap measure] with an omnibus,” Rogers said this week. “But the fiscal cliff sucked all the oxygen out of here.”

At the same time, Rogers finds himself in the middle of preparing for the fiscal year 2014 spending fight, which begins early next month with the release of the president’s budget.

And while he says his committee is moving forward, he acknowledged that the fiscal cliff and the dragged-out Sandy disaster relief fight have “been terribly time consuming.” It’s a complaint shared by some of his workhorse colleagues who may not be household names but whose jobs entail keeping the nuts and bolts of Washington working.

“I’m just kind of at a standstill at the moment,” Agriculture Committee Chairman Frank Lucas said Monday. “I’ve gotten to the point where I’m just kind of accepting the environment I’m working in.”

Like Rogers’ omnibus, Lucas’ reauthorization of the measure got caught up, in part, in the fight over the fiscal cliff. With the start of the new Congress, he had hoped to quickly move to the authorization in the first few weeks of the new session. But that doesn’t look likely now.

“Because of all the things beyond my control I don’t think its advisable to say there will be a markup by the end of February,” Lucas acknowledged, saying the various fiscal fights “make it a very complicated time.”

Asked when he thought he could begin working on the bill, Lucas was understandably circumspect: “It’s one of those things I’ll know when the time is right when my political gut tells me it’s right. And I just can’t tell you when that will be.”

Meanwhile, the denizens of the K Street lobbying corridor are seizing the opportunity to twist arms of idle committee members and suck money out of their clients, who are more insistent than ever that their issues keep moving forward.

“It’s incumbent on guys like me to make sure … my clients and their issues don’t get lost in the shuffle,” said Harry Sporidis, a lobbyist with the firm Polsinelli Shughart. Sporidis, a veteran lobbyist on a host of issues, acknowledged that the fiscal cliff, debt ceiling, sequester and government shutdown fights have essentially put normal legislative action in the House and Senate on hold until at least the end of March.

“It is backing things up, there’s no question about it … but there’s always ways to keep moving your issues forward,” Sporidis continued, adding that since those negotiations “are at such a high level, the rank-and-file members aren’t really in the talks,” which means there’s lots of time to meet with them and discuss other issues.

And with potentially trillions of dollars of spending or tax breaks at stake, lobbyists said that anecdotally it looks like there’s been a run on top-flight lobbyists by companies looking to protect their bottom lines.

“Everybody’s hiring up to not be a pay-for,” one lobbyist said, explaining that for most industries, it’s become a question of when, and not if, they will end up feeling pain from one of the various fiscal crisis deals in the offing. “At some point, you’re going to get wacked, it’s just a matter of when.”

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