The lobbying game is simple. The first step is to work on "The Hill" for a while to build up your sphere of relationships and influence. Of course, you don't have to work in an elected capacity, being a high-level staffer for a prominent Senator or Congressman is more than sufficient. Then, after you've hobnobbed with enough people on The Hill to be deemed worthy, you get recruited by a lobbying firm just down the road that's willing to pay you several multiples of your government salary in return for peddling your newly acquired influence. And, so you join the lobbying ranks where your sole mission is to peddle your influence to rake in millions of dollars from wealthy special interests.
But, in 2016, there's just one problem: Trump. For the past 12 months Trump has toured the nation telling his voters that he has every intention to "Drain The Swamp" in Washington D.C. and lobbyists are the epitome of everything that regular Americans see as broken with the system.
Needless to say, the prominent lobbying firms of Washington D.C. are in full-on panic mode. As BuzzFeed notes, presidential transitions are typically business as usual for the lobbyist because "normal" administrations are staffed with Washington insiders. But, that's not the case with Trump.
And while control of Washington shifts between parties will normally mean some reshuffling of the lobbyist deck, most on K Street are good enough at the long con to have solid relationships on both sides of the partisan divide to stay busy through the lean times.
But at least in the early stages of this year’s transition, Trump and his crew are turning that pattern on its head.
“The reality is that right now, Trump world is very small so access is very limited,” said Kyle Downey, president of Downey Communications and a veteran Republican strategist.
“Anybody who says they know how this going to work is kidding themselves, and their clients,” said a lobbyist with a bipartisan shop. “A lot of lobbyists are scrambling, because the biggest issue is access.”
The transition reset, combined with the relative neophytes running the show, have led to hair pulling on K Street. “Normally, you flip the switch, and the next day you know who’s going to be doing what. You don’t know with Trump. And that’s part of the problem,” a Democratic operative said.
Ironically, while most lobbyists are panicked over Trump's victory, Heather Podesta (sister-in-law to Hillary's former campaign manager, John Podesta) was among the first to reassure wealthy clients that her firm's "access" was solid. Nice try, Heather...we're not buying it and we suspect your "clients" aren't either.
Increasingly on edge are Democratic lobbyists. One of the most powerful Democratic lobbyists in Washington, Heather Podesta (whose former brother-in-law John Podesta ran Hillary Clinton’s failed campaign this year) wrote in an email to unnerved clients that their hard earned influence dollars were will still be well spent with her firm.
“Let’s connect soon about working the lame duck, making sure you’re engaging the transition team in the right way, preparing for the inauguration, and actively participating and shaping the first 100 days of a Trump Administration and the 115th Congress,” Podesta wrote in the email obtained by BuzzFeed News.
Podesta, who also raised huge sums of money for Clinton as a bundler, adds that Republicans “Robert [Hoffman] and Amy Swonger are actively working with the Trump transition team, and Robert’s been advising transition staff on ways to best engage the tech sector on policies that would be of mutual interest.”
“Amy and Robert will be a great resource, with an eye toward building even additional resources and value in the months ahead,” Podesta added, before closing the email, “Laura will be in touch to set up a call or meeting.”
Of course, actions speak louder than words and only time will tell if the Trump administration will follow through on their promises to "Drain The Swamp" in Washington D.C. While cutting off "access" to influence-peddlers is a great step, true long-term, fundamental change will require Trump to also follow through on his promise to set term limits for politicians. The only way to truly change the "dollars for access" game is to prevent D.C. insiders from staying on the Hill long enough to build the kind of influence that is valuable enough to sell.