Washington 'pros' -- they win even when they lose

Like Rome or London or other political capitals with long histories, Washington absorbs its conquerors. Barely three months into the Reagan era, the city appears to be thriving under change.

Or, at least the professionals of both major parties -- the lobbyists, lawyers, public relations firms -- are briskly employed.

And even though "Washington is for winners," as the Democratic pollster Peter Hart is fond of saying, the losers, too, seem to be doing just fine.

The new political cycle for the 1982 elections is already under way. Last fall's "losers" like Jimmy Carter's top domestic aide Stuart Eisenstadt and political director John Rendon have stashed themselves in law firms or started their own political consulting operations.

If the Reagan budget scythe does reduce the federal bureaucracy as much as planned, some 32,000 jobs in the Washington metro area could be lost, according to a study by the Metropolitan Washington Council of governments.

But most of the cuts would be from the rather faceless rank and file of the transportation, education, health, and other bureaucracies -- not the fast-moving Washington elite. The lobbyst and lawyers thrive amid change because the capital needs continuity, the experts say.

"For most lobby operations, business is booming," says Norman Ornstein, a congressional affairs expert. "Groups that have never had lobbies before -- the arts, the sciences -- are hiring them to deal with the challenge of the new administration.'

Republican lobbyist James H. Lake observes that the public interest groups are also hiring lobbyists. For some the issues are not so much fighting the proposed budget cuts, but making sure they get a part of what's left, he says.

"For every lobbyist I know, times are good," says Mr. Lake. "Change is good for lobbyists. Change means confusion. Democrats, Republicans, conservatives, liberals, all need to know how to operate in times of change."

Business lobbies are still tied into federal government actions, regardless of Reagan rhetoric about getting government off business's back, observes Mr. Ornstein. "They want to protect their assets," he says. "They can't just sit back and hope things turn out well."

Ironically, at least half of business's lobbying today is to gain advantage against competitors, not against the government itself, Ornstein notes.

Some Washington enterprises will suffer if the Reagan wholesale budget changes pass as planned. Consulting groups that combine lobbying with research in areas like nutrition could lose business. But consulting firms in educational research could gain if the education department is dismantled.

Republican Lake's own case illustrates how a knowledge of the way Washington works enables "losers" to survive for another political round. He was fired from the Reagan staff along wirh strategist John Sears on New Hampshire primary day last year, in a dispute over campaign authority. Missing barely a step, he was back in business with his lobby work, primarily for agricultural groups, along with the other winner and loser professionals of past political battles.

Instead of clearing the capital of its past power structure, the Reagan "revolution" will leave behind its own battalions of experienced professionals.

"There were already a lot of Republican operatives here," says Ornstein. "The vast bulk of a new administration stays on in town. After the eight years of Republican rule from '68 to '76 a lot of conservatives stayed on. The new "Reagan class" will include conservatives and ultra-conservatives.

Many Americans are cynical about the role that lobbyists and political operatives play. But lobbyists are a useful, not just a hard-to-eradicate fixture in Washington, their defenders say.

"That was Carter's problem," says Lake. "He didn't want to work with the thousands of people, the tens of thousands, who know the system in Washington."

Over the long run, says Lake, even Reagan policies will gradually be "tempered" by the longtime players in town --including many members of Congress, Lake says.

And while all the interest groups are trying to sort out where they stand as the new administration gets into gear, the Washington "pros" continue to prosper.

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