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How Washington lobbyists peddle power

The equivalent of six health-care lobbyists for every member of Congress are registered for this year's biggest political battle.

By David T. CookStaff writer, Staff writer / September 28, 2009

A lobbyist at the Capitol building.

Photo Illustration: Melanie Stetson Freeman / Staff

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If labor lobbyist Robert “Bobby” Juliano didn’t move away from his stakeout just off the Senate floor from time to time, he might be mistaken for a statue.

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Other lobbyists have moved on to BlackBerrys and instant messaging. (He calls them “the thumb generation.”) But for Mr. Juliano, who has been in the thick of every big labor issue in the past 36 years, there’s no substitute for face-to-face contact with members of Congress.

“I’m not going to be sitting in an office when my workbench is the seat of power for the whole world,” he says, standing in the ornate Senate reception room where lobbyists mingle with members before and after floor votes.

The lobbying world has shifted dramatically since Juliano came to Washington in 1973 to lobby for the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees and Bartenders International Union, shaking hands and trading stories with such labor allies as Hubert Humphrey, Jacob Javits, and Edward Kennedy, and pushing issues ranging from the minimum wage to healthcare and comprehensive immigration reform.

But, now representing an expanded labor group, UNITED HERE, he says the fundamentals are the same: Get there early. Stuff your pockets with business cards. And if it’s a tax issue, don’t come in unless you’ve got legislative language, committee support on both sides of the aisle, and a start laying the groundwork on the Senate side.

Lobbyists like Juliano and their efforts to shape policy are back in the spotlight this year, as Congress works a legislative agenda of historic size and scope. The battle over reform of the nation’s healthcare system is the biggest effort to influence national policy in nearly a quarter century.

Some 3,300 lobbyists have registered on the healthcare issue alone, all striving to shape the outcome in their clients’ interest. With the equivalent of six healthcare lobbyists for each member of Congress, experts say the battle today is larger than that over President Clinton’s 1993 healthcare reform push.

The fight over healthcare is “the largest lobbying effort” since the 1986 battle royal over tax reform during the Reagan administration, says Sheila Krumholz, executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics (CRP), which tracks the impact of money and lobbying on government policy.

The struggle over healthcare has a far-reaching and profound impact “on the corporations involved, on the interest groups involved, and on each and every American,” she says.

Also looming is a major battle over climate and energy legislation that narrowly passed in the House of Representatives last June and is expected to come up for Senate action this fall. It faces stiff resistance from business groups who say the House version of the legislation would raise energy prices and result in lost jobs.