The Incrementalist

Howard Marlowe’s 35-year mission to restore lobbying’s good name.

By Elizabeth Dwoskin

Photograph by Thomas Prior

On an April morning, Howard Marlowe started his day walking the byzantine hallways of the Capitol with the same goal he has had for 35-plus years: to try and persuade people to do something they’d rather not do. He was there to pay a visit to the office of Mike Quigley, a Democrat representing Chicago’s North Side. After a short wait, a smiling young staff member emerged from a backroom, and she and Marlowe made their way to the Longworth House Office cafeteria. It’s a walk he’s made countless times. The difference this time was that he wasn’t here on behalf of a client; he was representing himself.

Marlowe, who runs the K Street lobbying firm Marlowe & Co., is president of the American League of Lobbyists, the industry’s professional association, which counts about 1,400 of Washington’s 10,199 registered lobbyists as members. As lobbyist for the lobbyists, he represents those working for groups as diverse as the American Foundation for the Blind to über-lobbying firm Patton Boggs, which raked in $452 million lobbying last year.

Marlowe relishes his role as emissary, spokesman, and promoter of one of America’s most despised professions, which spent $3.32 billion in 2011, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. He’s also on a mission to reinvent the lobbyist brand. With money transforming American politics at an unprecedented level, Marlowe says it’s no wonder the public disdain for lobbying is at an all-time high. Yet he insists that lobbyists are misunderstood, that theirs is a noble calling, and it isn’t all about raising money for congressmen. Lobbying, he says, “is our version of advocacy journalism.”

To change the public’s mind and secure a future for lobbying, Marlowe is pushing to broaden the word’s definition. Congressman Quigley introduced legislation last year mandating that Congress publish more information about relationships with lobbyists than is currently required. Marlowe had an alternate proposal but still saw Quigley as a potential ally. On C-Span and in Washington publications such as The Hill, Marlowe frequently campaigns to rewrite current disclosure laws so that more people will have to register as lobbyists in a public database. He’s gotten the league to endorse mandatory ethics training for its members. He’s trying to cut down on the pay-to-play culture by organizing monthly breakfasts with members of Congress, which he says is a chance for lobbyists to get access without having to throw law-makers a pricey fundraiser.

Critics of lobbyists’ influence in the Capitol are open to Marlowe’s ideas, but many are skeptical that they are sufficient to change the process. “I think we’ve had enough reform efforts that move the chairs around the deck of the Titanic,” says Jack Abramoff, the former superlobbyist who got out of prison in 2010 after serving 3½ years for defrauding Indian tribes.

Lawrence Lessig, who directs a vast research project into public corruption at the Edmond J. Safra Center for Ethics at Harvard University, says: “There’s all the difference in the world between a lawyer making an argument to the jury and a lawyer handing out $100 bills to the jurors. That’s a distinction the system doesn’t understand right now.”

Even as he works for greater transparency, Marlowe faces an industry-wide shift that’s forced lobbyists to figure out new ways to practice their trade as earmarks in bills have been banned, gifts have been disallowed, and in-person meetings made more difficult to secure. President Barack Obama, who refuses contributions from lobbyists, has released some White House visitor logs for the first time and has prohibited recent lobbyists from joining the administration and from serving on White House advisory boards (though he has issued more than two dozen waivers to hire lobbyists). Obama has made it clear that this year lobbyists and corporations will not be allowed to contribute money to the Democratic National Convention.

Yet the Obama administration has violated the spirit of its own policies by meeting with corporate lobbyists at Caribou Coffee — avoiding the official visitor log — and ferrying them into the White House as guests of well-placed friends. The Democratic National Convention has quietly explained to lobbyists that although they cannot make contributions to the convention, they can encourage their corporate clients to write personal checks.

The White House’s latest attempt at taking the higher ground is in the form of a tough proposal that would ban lobbyists from interacting with thousands of federal employees. Under the proposed rules, lobbyists would no longer be allowed to sponsor federal employees to attend industry conferences and galas. “Pure nonsense,” Marlowe cries. “I’m sorry, but the whole world is built on relationships. What are you going to say, no relationships anymore?”

Marlowe and the Quigley aide got to the cafeteria and sat down, ready to joust. First, Marlowe complimented the staffer’s boss for being “out front” on the legislation. The aide, who wished to remain unnamed — Quigley’s bill would publicize such meetings but not the names of staff — set her clipboard on the table. She noted that Quigley’s and Marlowe’s proposals had five key issues, and that three of them overlapped quite nicely.

Both bills address the sticky question of who qualifies as a lobbyist. On the campaign trail last fall, Newt Gingrich’s credibility was undermined by the charge that he made millions of dollars consulting for Freddie Mac and healthcare companies — while never having to register as a lobbyist. Marlowe’s meeting with Quigley’s staffer was an opportunity to nail down a definition.

Marlowe noted the woman’s own “lobbying style”: She had preempted him by bringing up the League of Lobbyists’ proposal. She too wanted to establish common ground. He dove into the point where they agreed the most: getting more lobbyists registered. “To me, it’s critical,” Marlowe said. He gestured around the cafeteria, indicating how it was hard to know who was a buttoned-up lobbyist and who was a buttoned-up congressional staffer. The woman nodded vigorously.

Both the Quigley and Marlowe proposals would get rid of what’s known as the 20 percent loophole. That rule says people who spend less than 20 percent of their time lobbying on Capitol Hill don’t have to register as Washington lobbyists. How much of one’s time constitutes 20 percent is entirely up to the lobbyists, which is one reason why Gingrich could fly under the radar, critics say. “Even I could have gotten out of the 20 percent rule,” Abramoff says. “These are basically fungible numbers.”

Marlowe and the aide knew they disagreed on what would replace the 20 percent rule. Quigley’s bill would get rid of the time rule entirely and force lawmakers to report every single contact with a lobbyist — each meeting, coffee, and exchange of chitchat at a fundraiser. Marlowe didn’t like that at all; he wanted to lower it to 10 percent for lobbyists from industry associations and non-profits, but eliminate a time cap for professional lobbyists like himself. He thought that reporting every contact with a lobbyist was crazy.

Instead of saying so, Marlowe brought up a scenario. He asked the aide to picture a chief executive officer who flies into Washington three times a year on a corporate jet to meet with members of Congress. “By the look and smell of it, he’s engaged in lobbying. But how to treat him?” he said. “That’s where we got tied into knots. What is the standard? Is it a dollar amount? I have no problem with that,” Marlowe said, muddling just what it was that he had a problem with. “The corporate CEO would break it just for flying his jet in.”

Maybe, the aide said, there should be a two-tiered registration system, one for people like CEOs, for whom it’s impossible to separate how much they get paid for lobbying from their salaries, and one for other kinds of lobbyists. She shrugged and said she was just brainstorming.

Marlowe, though, has a problem with any proposal that would rope in a CEO. The more they talked, the more difficult it became to define the word “lobbyist.” Was it the CEO, or a small-town dentist being flown to Washington by the American Dental Association? How about the small armies of researchers that supply lobbyists with ready-made language to insert in legislation?

Nothing really happened at the meeting, but Marlowe considered it successful. A needle had been moved forward an imperceptible fraction. Marlowe had also made a decision: The league would not be endorsing the Quigley bill — at least, not in its current form. A requirement to report every single meeting, he insists, is a de facto attack on lobbyist’s free speech rights.

Entering into a conversation with Marlowe, 69, is a quizzical experience. He answers questions with questions, and in a low, raspy voice that never betrays a hint of passion. It’s hard to know where he stands, yet he projects the confidence of someone who is certain he knows what you want.

Marlowe started lobbying in 1978, a year before the American League of Lobbyists was founded. In response to Watergate, the Senate tried to close loopholes in disclosure rules that governed lobbyists, but lobbyists argued that their free speech was being curtailed and beat back the bill. From the outset, the league attempted to create a body of ethical standards for lobbyists to show that their tainted profession was, in fact, capable of regulating itself.

Marlowe, who declines to say which party he belongs to, started his own boutique lobbying firm in 1984. His clients are mostly Republican-controlled local governments. He represents a county in Florida seeking restoration funds from the BP oil spill. One longtime client, the American Shore and Beach Preservation Association, employs him year after year to continue to push for more federal funding to prevent coastal erosion. There are many days when he spends hours on the Hill with the handful of legislative aides that specialize in water issues — they’ve all known one another for years — narrowing a tiny piece of language that, on its face, seems completely insubstantial. It has taken years to get a word changed. Often he works until 10 or 11 at night.

Marlowe became president of the American League of Lobbyists in January 2011, a position he also held in 1989. His first act in office last year was to get the board to endorse an ethics training class for lobbyists. The course, he says, would familiarize members with the current legislation governing the profession, the Lobbying Disclosure Act. After the Abramoff scandal, Congress tightened the gift rules, making it so that lobbyists could not give any gifts to members of Congress or their staffs.

Although he wants to be sure lobbyists understand these rules, Marlowe doesn’t agree with them. “You can’t take them to lunch,” he complains. “You can’t take them to dinner. You can’t even buy a bottle of water for them! So what do lobbyists do? They tend to pay $500 or more to go to a fundraiser, where they will be asked to discuss whatever their issue is.”

He has also focused the league on image consulting. Marlowe has drafted a PR campaign, which he calls “The Many Faces of Lobbying.” He’s held seminars for lobbyists — masters of messaging — in social media. If they tweet about what they do, he says, it will make the whole thing seem less secretive.

Marlowe extols the benefits of lobbying to anyone who will listen, and is starting an Internet radio show, The Inner Loop, that will give what he calls “an insider’s view of Washington.” His campaign against the 20 percent loophole isn’t entirely fueled by civic nobility. He also wants to level the playing field: These secret lobbyists, who exert influence while remaining unregistered, he insists, make things unfair for the official lobbyists.

It took him a year to get the board to agree to a resolution ending the 20 percent rule. Lobbyists in the group resisted the public scrutiny. “I understand,” says Marlowe. “I don’t like the media doing nasty stories about me, either.”

Marlowe isn’t always successful at lobbying his colleagues. When he proposed a rule saying that lobbyists would commit to not talking about policy issues at campaign fundraisers, the members shot him down. “They weren’t ready for that,” he says, shaking his head. Marlowe himself says he has never talked about a client’s issue at a fundraiser.

For Harvard’s Lessig, restrictions such as these are meaningless. “Rules about what you can say are just silly. As long as the system is providing the funding, people will recognize who is providing the funding and who isn’t,” he says. “All of these solutions ignore the capacity of humans to understand each other. You can have rules where you say you can’t talk about things, or you can’t talk about things at certain times. But people understand cause and effect.”

Campaign fundraisers loom larger than ever in the lives of lobbyists now. By far, the biggest transformation in the profession in the past 30 years is the surge in the amount of money needed to run for office, and politicians have become dependent on lobbyist cash to bankroll their campaigns. “There’s not a lobbyist in this town who likes being called up regularly by a member of Congress or campaign staff to say, ‘Hey, cough up some money for a campaign,’” he says. “We would prefer not to have those calls.”

The day-to-day activities of a lobbyist have changed a lot, too. Congress is at a virtual standstill compared with two years ago, when major bills on health care and Wall Street reform were passed, and lobbyists were spending an unprecedented amount of money.

Two years later the bills are law, and lobbyists are putting their energies into the rulemaking process, which is run by federal agencies and not lawmakers. Whatever special-interest groups don’t like in a bill, they attempt to undermine and tweak in the rulemaking process. Unlike lobbying Congress, where it’s hard for the public to have any sense of the issues being lobbied on or the meetings that take place, lobbying government agencies is mind-numbingly transparent: Every agency must post all the comments made about a given rule on their website.

Last year lawmakers banned earmarks, legislative provisions tucked into bills that target money for specific projects in their home localities. Without earmarks to argue for, lobbyists have to figure out how to sneak provisions that they want into the few bills that get passed. That means a lot more waiting and strategizing.

On top of all of that, face-to-face meetings are harder to come by. Members of Congress have always been busy, yet over the years e-mail and increasingly lengthy lists of obligations have made schedules tighter. The profession of lobbying has suffered, sighs Marlowe. When he started his career there were a few ways one could meet a member of Congress. He could arrange a meeting with the member (the House was always much easier than the Senate). He could meet with staff. He could stand outside the door of the Senate lounge and ask a porter to submit a note card to a lawmaker requesting an impromptu meeting — a long-standing practice that may have given birth to the term “lobbyist.” He could chase after the member as he walked through the Capitol between votes. “That used to be one of the poorer ways,” he says wistfully. “Now it’s one of the better ways.”

Marlowe has tried to use what-ever clout the league has to help lobbyists get access to members of Congress in ways that don’t involve getting hit up for money. To that end, he holds a monthly breakfast meeting with a different member of Congress as a keynote speaker. The lobbyists pay $50 and get a chance to bring up whatever issues they want. Marlowe is always pushing for more personal contact. “You can’t lobby through e-mail,” he says.

Marlowe doesn’t see anything wrong with fundraising, but he laments that a new generation of lobbyists thinks using cash is the way to make people listen. “It’s getting harder to recruit young people into the profession,” he says, although he is training his receptionist on how to lobby. Joel Porter, a 29-year-old who works for Marlowe’s firm, is a standout. He brings a certain idealism to the job. Porter asks: “You take your freshman Tea Party member of Congress, who doesn’t know how things work. How else is he going to learn?”


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