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Lobbyists: Whose Calls Won't Be Returned

Former Representative Tom Downey is crying foul over Capitol Hill's post-Abramoff push to change the rules of influence peddling. Now a lobbyist for blue-chip clients ranging from Time Warner (TWX) to Fannie Mae (FNM), the Democrat from Long Island is a regular in the House gym -- a privilege he may soon lose.

The result, Downey says, will be a lot of boring basketball: "If they ban former members [from the games], who's going to pass the ball?" Bada-bing. Toss in a possible prohibition against dining out with lawmakers, Downey adds, and "the former members will all be fat because they're not allowed to work out anymore. And the current members will all be skinny because they're not allowed to eat lunch." Bada-boom.

No joke: Downey and his fellow lobbyists are bracing for the backlash from the Jack Abramoff scandal. But while Washington lobbyists may all look alike from beyond the Beltway, they actually come in many varieties -- and the changes will hit some Gucci Gulchers far harder than others.

Dangerous Calls

Take lawmakers-turned-lobbyists such as Downey or Bob Livingston, once a powerful Louisiana Republican. Following the lead of House Rules Committee Chairman David Dreier (R-Calif.) and Speaker Dennis Hastert (R-Ill.), the House voted on Feb. 1 to ban ex-members who are lobbyists from the House floor and gym. Loss of that easy, informal access to members could reduce House alumni's billable rates.

Of even more diminishing value are former Hill staffers whose primary -- and sometimes sole -- qualification is their ability to get the old boss on the phone, pronto. These "access lobbyists" will be viewed with suspicion by lawmakers who know that greedy ex-staffers can do them more harm than good. Already, one firm, Alexander Strategy Group, founded by longtime aides to former House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Tex.), has shut its doors.

Another breed of influence peddlers specializes in wrangling specific projects from congressional appropriators. This bacon patrol brings billions of dollars to favored companies and communities via more than 15,000 "earmarks," or targeted projects, each year. Now, pork-busting Senator John McCain (R-Ariz.) and his House allies want to turn off the pipeline. That would endanger specialty firms such as Van Scoyoc Associates, which won money in 2005 for clients ranging from the Alabama Institute for the Deaf & Blind to Raytheon (RTN). President Stu Van Scoyoc concedes that the changes could hurt, but says: "The people who will be successful are the people who do it best."

Reform could produce winners, too. Hill offices will depend more than ever on wonk lobbyists, whose power rests on their mastery of arcane laws and regulations. "For those lobbyists who immerse themselves in the substantive details, this won't be a negative thing," says Scott Segal, an energy specialist with law firm Bracewell & Giuliani.

Trade associations will benefit as well. Their wish lists are clear, unlike those of hired-gun lobbyists with long client rosters and hidden agendas. Lawmakers can easily defend their meetings with industry groups, especially those with members in their districts.

But the best-positioned of all in the new Washington? Ethics attorneys. "This will create a new industry of compliance lawyers," predicts one Republican lobbyist. For legions of lobbyists who suddenly find themselves out in the cold, that could be a promising career path.

Campaign dirty tricks have found fertile new ground: Wikipedia. Congressional staffers have discovered that anyone can tinker with entries in the online encyclopedia, and they've inserted or deleted more than 1,000 embarrassing items on their bosses' -- or foes' -- write-ups. Representative Richard Pombo's entry was edited to include the California Republican's ties to disgraced lobbyist Jack Abramoff. An anonymous detractor inserted the false claim that Tom Coburn (R-Okla.) was voted "most annoying senator" by his peers. And the bio of Representative Marty Meehan (D-Mass.) was scrubbed to remove mention of his broken term-limit pledge.

Alerted to the mischief by a reporter for the Lowell (Mass.) Sun, Wikipedia has blocked access from House accounts three times, most recently on Jan. 28. Wikimedia Foundation President Jimmy Wales has asked the Wiki community to solve the vexing problem.

Call it Social Security redux. The AFL-CIO is putting the leaders of a dozen banks on notice that it will hammer them if they get behind President Bush's plan to boost health savings accounts. The labor federation hopes for a repeat of 2005, when its pressure kept some financial firms from stumping for Social Security private accounts. The targeted banks have founded a lobbying coalition to push for the health accounts. But unions contend that replacing employer-provided insurance with HSAs will undermine the financial security of workers -- who are also bank customers.

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