INSIDE WASHINGTON/Local leaders lean on D.C. lobbyists
Dozens of U.S. senators and representatives live in Fairfax County, a sprawling Virginia suburb that lies in the shadow of the nation’s capital. But when it comes to securing federal funding, the county’s board of supervisors is taking no chances.
Fairfax County pays Government Relations, based in Washington, D.C., $75,000 a year to lobby Congress and the White House on issues important to its community, including securing federal aid to help alleviate the county’s traffic gridlock. “We have to have, in our opinion, our own representative to lobby [Capitol] Hill,” says Fairfax Supervisor Gerald Hyland. “We are not alone. Many counties feel they absolutely need to have a representative there.”
Cities also hire legislative muscle in Washington. More than 300 lobbyists were registered with Congress last year to work on behalf of cities and counties, according to an analysis of lobbying disclosure reports by American City & County.
This year, the number of communities using lobbyists is likely to grow as the federal domestic budget shrinks because of the war on terrorism and dwindling tax dollars. “Given the nature of competition of federal grants, it makes sense to have as much power as you can,” says Sonoma County, Calif., Supervisor Tim Smith, whose county employs two lobbying firms: Arlington, Va.-based Alcade & Fay; and Washington, D.C.-based Van Ness Feldman.
“I think every city, if they could afford to occasionally hire a temporary lobbyist for a specific project, would,” says Cameron Whitman, director of policy and federal relations for the Washington, D.C.-based National League of Cities (NLC). While NLC and two other Washington, D.C.-based organizations, the National Association of Counties (NACo) and the U.S. Conference of Mayors, represent cities and counties on macro issues in Washington, those organizations are not able to lobby directly for individual municipalities on specific projects.
Chris Pedigo, who represents cities as diverse as Kansas City, Mo., and Springettsbury, Pa., says it is vital for local governments to have experienced representatives in Washington. “It is important for a city or county to have somebody in Washington who can follow up on their initial requests to Congress and, in effect, move the ball down the field through their members’ offices, through the committee offices or through the relevant federal agency,” advises Pedigo, a government relations consultant with Pittsburgh-based Reed Smith.
Washington insiders suggest that, before hiring a lobbyist, local officials conduct a full assessment of what they hope to achieve in hiring outside representation. Many of those goals, lobbyists say, might be reached by simply working closely with their congressional delegation. But requests that carry a price tag into the hundreds of thousands of dollars might need the aid of a lobbying firm.
If a city or county wants to hire a firm, lobbying veterans suggest local officials interview several firms to get an idea of what each has to offer. To collect names of potential lobbyists, cities and counties can contact members or aides in a community’s congressional delegation and municipalities that already have hired representation.
Cost and payment methods vary, from an hourly rate that begins at about $200 to retainers that exceed $100,000 a year. “The disadvantage [of hiring a lobbyist] is that it costs us money,” says Hennepin County, Minn., Commissioner Randy Johnson, whose county employs two firms: Washington, D.C.-based Lockridge Grindal & Naven, and Atlanta-based Powell, Goldstein, Frazer & Murphy. “But the advantage is they are often in the position to get federal money for us that we would not otherwise get.”
The author is Washington correspondent for American City & County.