As Congress gears up for a legislative response to the oil spill in the Gulf and energy reform more broadly, some political observers are increasingly worried that the deck may be stacked in private industry's favor.
That's because in the first three months of this year alone, the company at the heart of the current crisis, BP, has hired at least 27 lobbyists who formerly worked in Congress or the executive branch. The revolving door between the oil giant and elected office is spinning fast -- so much so that good government officials are hard-pressed to name a comparable organization with that much institutional clout on tap.
"It is a lot," said David Donnelly National Campaigns Director at Public Campaign Action Fund. "You don't often find more than two dozen."
In the first three months of 2010 -- the three months that immediately preceded the explosion of its Deepwater Horizon offshore oil rig -- BP spent more than $3.8 million dollars on lobbying the federal government. The cash was spread around seven prominent lobby shops within the D.C. area (including BP's own internal operation), who in turn employed 39 lobbyists to help the company push its legislative interests. That nearly 70 percent of those hired guns have experience in elected office doesn't surprise good government officials because those are after all the most sought-after hires on K Street.
"BP is in a great deal of trouble, so they are going to pull [out all] the stops when it comes to lobbying activity," said Craig Holman, Legislative Representative for Public Citizen. "And the most expensive and effective lobbyists are those connected to the administration or Congress or both."
"A former Hill staffer who is now lobbying comes with a ready-made Rolodex of contacts for those people working and writing legislation," added Donnelly.
Take, for instance, the company's hiring of the powerhouse Podesta Group, which was paid $60,000 in contracts in 2010. As part of the package, BP received the lobbying assistance of Paul Brathwaite who served as the Executive Director for the Congressional Black Caucus; Hewitt Strange, a former aide to Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu (D-LA); Andrew Lewin, who served as Legislative Director for Rep. Dennis Moore (D-KS); Randall Gerard, who served as a staff member under Sen. John McCain (R-AZ); Tim Glassco, who was a congressional relations staff for Obama's Presidential Inaugural Committee; Teal Baker a "former high-level director" with the Obama for America campaign and one-time aide to Congressman Brian Baird (D-WA); David Marin who served as the Minority Staff Director of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee in 2007; and Cristina Antelo, who worked for former Sens. Hillary Clinton and Tom Daschle. Then there is the head of the firm itself, Tony Podesta, who is one of the most powerful lobbyists in D.C., a one-time counsel to former Sen. Ted Kennedy and a lobbyist on the BP account.
The Podesta Group's clout within the halls of power is unmatched among lobbying shops in the capital. And the concern among watchdog groups is that when it comes time for Congress or the White House to crack the whip on BP -- crafting legislation that would, among other things, increase the liability cap for damaging spills or implement firmer regulatory measures on offshore drilling -- the oil company's cadre of hired guns will have a captive audience with their former colleagues.
"This is a cause for concern," said Holman, "because the revolving door is one of the most pernicious and yet effective means for driving influence on Capitol Hill."
The Podesta Group isn't the only major player working on BP's behalf. The Alpine Group has received $60,000 this year from the oil giant in lobbying contracts. Among the aides working on the account are Jason Schendle, who formerly served as legislative counsel to Senator Landrieu; Courtney Johnson, another veteran of Landrieu's staff; Bob Brooks, the former chief of staff to former Rep. Jim McCrery (R-La.), and Rebecca Hawes, the former legislative counsel to former Sen. John Breaux (D-La.).
The Duberstein Group, meanwhile, has been paid $100,000 to lobby for BP this quarter. Among those on the portfolio are Steve Champlin, a former aide to Majority Whip Steny Hoyer; Brian Griffin, a former aide to Senator Byron Dorgan; Daniel Meyer, who was formerly chief of staff for Newt Gingrich as well as chief congressional liaison in the Bush White House; Eric Ueland, former chief of staff to Senator Bill Frist; and Marti Thomas, who worked in the Clinton Treasury Department and was an executive assistant for then-House Democratic leader Richard Gephardt, (D-Mo).
The Brunswick Group is helping BP with its communications operation, not lobbying. The firm's brass includes Hilary Rosen, a former Democratic congressional aide and (full disclosure) a former editor-at-large for the Huffington Post.
Many of these aides-turned-lobbyists held critical positions with respect to post-spill legislative activity (whether in leadership circles or on key committees like the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee). And even officials on the Hill are resigned to the fact that in the weeks, if not months, ahead a major lobbying effort will be launched to affect spill-related legislation. Prior to the spill, at least two lobbyists had visited the White House for BP-related meetings.
That said, on the Hill, the influence-peddling on BP's behalf has so far (it appears) been limited at best. A staffer for Senator McCain said she had "never heard" of former staffer Randall Gerard. A spokesperson for Rep. Baird said that former staffer and Podesta Group lobbyist Teal Baker had not had any contact with the congressman's office.
There have been "no oil lobbyist meetings in our office before or after the spill," said Lisa Austin, the congressman's chief of staff.
Stephanie Lundberg, a spokesperson for Majority Leader Hoyer, said Champlin had not contacted the office. Howard Bauleke, chief of staff for Rep. Dennis Moore, said that the Podesta Group's Lewin had not discussed energy or Gulf-related matters with his former employer.
"With regard to limiting interaction with BP lobbyists, I don't believe we've heard from any of them on anything lately," Bauleke added, via email. "If they have any sense [and Lewin would know this], they realize that Dennis is a former trial lawyer who's always been strongly supported by Americans for Justice [formerly ATLA], so they know better than to think he might be approachable on things like damage caps or other liability limits."
Tony Podesta declined a request for comment, as did the White House.