WASHINGTON — The swamp is not being drained. Instead, it’s about to be restocked with a species that is used to running this town and taking advantage of nearly every opportunity: lobbyists.
Despite President-elect Donald Trump’s campaign vow to “drain the swamp” and “phase out” lobbyists, well-connected influencers are circling because, after years of gridlock, the skids are again being greased for action in a Republican-controlled capital. Something might actually get done in Washington.
Trump is pushing for a large infusion of spending on infrastructure. He wants to bulk up the military. Tax reform? That too. Sweeping changes to the health insurance industry? Yep.
And every issue draws a cadre of lobbyists, who had seen their number dip during the Obama years.
“The hoses are on,” said Steve Elmendorf, a top Democratic lobbyist. “The swamp is filling up.”
On K Street, the lobbying corridor, those with even loose ties to Trump say their phones are constantly buzzing. Democratic-leaning firms are trying to figure out how to gain insight into a man they admittedly don’t understand. And good luck to anyone trying to predict what Trump — who relishes his reputation as a wily and unpredictable deal-maker — will end up doing.
“The city has been in gridlock since 2006. There’s a lot of pent-up demand for a lot of things,” said Trent Lott, the former Senate majority leader who is now a powerful lobbyist. “When the Congress is working and the president is working, it enlivens the city. There will be challenges and opportunities for lobbyists.”
“There have been a lot of people supportive of doing nothing and gridlock,” he added. “It’s time we be for something in this city.”
Over President Obama’s eight years in office, the number of lobbyists has declined dramatically. In 2008, the year before Obama took over, there were 14,153 registered lobbyists, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. That declined nearly 25 percent by last year. The amount of spending, which had previously almost always increased, is down by about 2.5 percent.
A large reason for the decrease is that Congress was lurching from crisis to crisis, rather than crafting sweeping legislation that brings lobbyists to the Hill. Only during the first two years of Obama’s presidency — when Democrats controlled the House and Senate — did the mood match the current level of anticipation.
Much of the next wave of action will focus on Republican promises to unwind some of Obama’s big legislative achievements.
“The first two years of any new administration are busy, but Trump wants to change the tax code, overhaul the health care sector, and roll back regulations on Wall Street and the oil-and-gas industry,” said Patrick O’Connor, head of a strategic communications division at CGCN Group, a top Republican lobbying firm. “Add to that his desire to boost military spending and pass a $1 trillion infrastructure package, and it’s safe to say Washington will be working overtime for the foreseeable future.”
One of the things Trump has talked about pursuing first is a large infrastructure bill. He wants to fix airports, ailing bridges, and rebuild the urban centers of America. But that will test Republican alliances.
Trump lost in most cities, which tend to be far more diverse than the rural coalition that lifted him to office. But cities, with strained mass transit systems, crumbling highways, and dilapidated airports, are where the greatest infrustracture spending is needed.
‘Lobbyists are hired more for defense rather than offense. And man, people are playing defense right now because they don’t know what the Trump administration is going to be like.’Scott Ferson, Liberty Square Group
“There’s a big dichotomy in what people in Trump Tower want to do and what traditional Republicans in Washington want to do,” Elmendorf said. “With infrastructure, Trump talks about spending $1 trillion. But the deal fell apart [in 2015] when [Senator] Chuck Schumer wanted $275 billion and [House Speaker] Paul Ryan wanted $125 billion.”
Trump has more experience doing the influencing than being influenced. And despite his lofty campaign claims to change the culture of Washington, Trump’s transition team is filled with lobbyists.
He has said that will change — and the Wall Street Journal reported Tuesday night that all lobbyists on the transition team were being removed.
“We’re doing a lot of things to clean up the system,” Trump said in a “60 Minutes” interview that aired on Sunday. “But everybody that works for government, they then leave government and they become a lobbyist, essentially. I mean, the whole place is one big lobbyist. . . I’m saying that they know the system right now, but we’re going to phase that out. You have to phase it out.”
All those lobbyists on his team have been providing Democrats with fodder. Elizabeth Warren, the senator from Massachusetts, said Tuesday she sent Trump a letter demanding that he remove “special interest lobbyists, Wall Street bankers, and industry insiders” from his transition team.
“You made numerous promises to the American people in your election campaign, none bigger than the promise to ‘drain the swamp’ of Washington, D.C., special interests rigged against the middle class,” Warren said she wrote.
David Tamasi, a well-connected Republican lobbyist at the Boston- and Washington-based lobbying and communications firm Rasky Baerlein, raised campaign money as the Trump Victory finance chairman for Washington.
“You have somebody who is a political outsider, has no real ties to the town, and a lot of the people close to him are not Washington people,” Tamasi said. “Couple that with all the logical energy with a new administration and a new Congress — and a lot of people are trying to decipher what the hell is going to happen.”
“There’s a realignment in Washington with this new administration with a whole host of priorities and a lot of folks are playing catch-up,” he added.
That’s particularly true for New England. The region is in danger of being locked out, with Democrats holding almost all of the congressional and state-based elected positions. The region’s two most prominent Republicans — Governor Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Senator Susan Collins of Maine — both disavowed Trump during the campaign.
“If you’re a business that needs to interact with the federal government on whatever level, you’re probably panicked right now. And when people are panicked they hire lobbyists,” said Scott Ferson, the president of Liberty Square Group. “Lobbyists are hired more for defense rather than offense. And man, people are playing defense right now because they don’t know what the Trump administration is going to be like.
“Plus, he’s talking about spending like a drunken Democrat,” he added. “When you marry uncertainty with a lot of federal money, the lobbyists in the swamp are going to be even happier.”
Trump is also talking about cutting all federal funds to “sanctuary cities” like Boston and Somerville, where officials have refused to participate in immigration crackdowns.
For a region that always had a line into the Obama administration — with a West Wing stocked with Massachusetts natives and Harvard alums — the new administration presents uncharted territory.
“If you needed to check an action in the administration that was going to significantly harm Massachusetts,” Ferson said, “there is not a soul identified who would be that lifeline into this administration.”Matt Viser can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @mviser.