Lobbyists Eye Bush's Cabinet Picks

Long before they start their new jobs, President Bush's (search) Cabinet picks are getting close attention from lobbyists who follow the smallest moves from start to finish — even urging senators to ask specific questions at confirmation hearings.

The most influential lobbyists (search) get calls from the White House discreetly seeking their views and background information on those Bush considers for top jobs.

While many lobbies do not hesitate to suggest names, they often shy away from aggressive campaigning. Besides the risk of dooming a Cabinet (search) prospect by making him or her seem self-promoting, there is also the danger a group's favorite won't be chosen by Bush and the person who is will find out the lobby really wanted someone else.

"We tend to talk with the White House about the kind of person that we would urge him to appoint and he selects the actual individual," said Steve Bartlett, president of the Financial Services Roundtable, whose members include banks and other financial-services companies.

Securities and Exchange Commission appointments are the lobby's top priority for 2005, Bartlett said. "Most of our member companies believe the SEC has become quite heavy-handed," he said, adding that they hope the next round of appointments leads to a "more balanced course."

Some see the weeks between an official's nomination and Senate confirmation hearing as a more important lobbying opportunity than Bush's deliberations over whom to pick.

Jim Albertine, a lobbyist and former head of the American League of Lobbyists, will press senators on key committees to ask some nominees specific questions about issues that both interest lawmakers and affect his clients, including chiropractors, superconductor companies and businesses involved in technology, trade and national security.

"Not only ask a question, but in fact maybe elicit some sort of commitment from the nominee prior to their confirmation that they would look into it," Albertine said. "If you have a senator in support and who believes also in a particular issue and asks the nominee about it in any particular area, I think it's very important because then he or she is on the record and you can later point to that record when you're moving your issue forward."

That lobbying technique can backfire, Albertine added. "You have to be careful that you not only know what the question is — you pretty much know what the answer is going to be," he said.

Dan Danner, a lobbyist for the National Federation of Independent Business, said the small-business lobby is most interested in Bush's choices for top jobs at Treasury, Commerce, Labor and the Small Business Administration.

"Each of those, we do probably what others do and look for opportunities to weigh in with friends and acquaintances at the White House and then presidential personnel, et cetera, on candidates," Danner said.

After nominees are named, NFIB is typically among groups White House officials will look to for help briefing them on key issues before confirmation hearings begin. A proposal to allow trade associations to provide health insurance for their members' employees is one issue on which the group will likely tutor Cabinet nominees, Danner said.

High-priority positions for special interests often are obvious. For the National Cattlemen's Beef Association, they include the agriculture secretary, while the Nuclear Energy Institute is most interested in Bush's picks to head the Energy Department and Nuclear Regulatory Commission, for example.

But for some, the interest in Bush's new hires goes two or three levels below the secretary — or deeper.

"Certainly Energy," said Luke Popovich, spokesman for the National Mining Association. "We have an interest, obviously, in the fossil-fuels assistant secretary there because obviously that is a position which should be an articulate and forceful advocate for clean-coal utilization."

Lobbying is needed even in an energy industry-friendly administration like Bush's because there's always competition among the various types of energy companies for federal dollars, Popovich said.

The American Farm Bureau Federation's interests go far beyond the agriculture secretary to include the heads of the Interior and Transportation departments, deputy secretaries, undersecretaries, the heads of the Fish and Wildlife Service and the Food and Drug Administration and various regional officials.

"The administration will often ask us, and the last one did as well, for a check: 'If this guy gets the job are you guys going to go ballistic or are you going to stand up and cheer?"' executive director Mark Maslyn said. "They oftentimes don't know these people and they want to know how it's going to be received."

Once a person is nominated, the federation typically sends an endorsement letter to the Senate committee holding confirmation hearings, Maslyn said.

Popovich said that after four years with Bush as president, effective lobbies shouldn't need to conduct a full-court press to weigh in on nominations.

"You should have established a relationship where it's sufficient to say, 'You might want to consider so-and-so,"' he said.