K Street 1, Ideology 0
If lobbying shops hire Democrats this spring, it may bring an end to a decade-long effort to tie America's business lobby to the GOP.
By Jeremy Kahn, FORTUNE contributor

(FORTUNE Magazine) - This spring in Washington, D.C., many lobbying shops are contemplating doing something they haven't done in years: hiring Democrats. That, in turn, may spell the beginning of the end of the decade-long effort to turn America's business lobby into a wholly owned wing of the GOP.

Since gaining control of the House of Representatives in 1994, the Republican leadership has engaged in an often hardball campaign known as the K Street Project, aimed at convincing trade associations and corporate lobbyists that they should hire only Republicans and donate only to Republican candidates.

This attempt at consolidating power marked a major assault on the culture of Washington lobbying, in which companies maintained a scrupulously bipartisan profile so that they could curry favor with legislators from either party.

When the Electronic Industries Alliance hired former Democratic Representative Dave McCurdy as president in 1998, then-majority whip Tom DeLay famously held up legislation the group wanted until it sidelined McCurdy. Such coercive tactics paid off:

In 2003, a Republican National Committee official bragged that of the 36 top lobbying jobs the RNC was tracking, 33 had been filled with Republicans. DeLay alone managed to place some 29 former staffers at K Street firms. The cash flowed in too: According to figures compiled by the Center for Responsive Politics, by 2004 Republicans were out-fundraising Democrats by more than two to one.

But times have changed. DeLay, indicted for money laundering in his home state of Texas, plans to leave Congress in June. The Senate has passed a lobbying reform bill that would outlaw the strong-arm techniques he used. Most important, the Democrats are poised to make gains in November's elections, perhaps even winning enough seats to retake the House.

All of which has corporate America eager to hire Democratic lobbyists again. Among those that have recently made the leap: Viacom (Research), Amgen (Research), the Business Roundtable, and even the Federalist Group, founded as a Republican-only political consulting firm with close ties to GOP leaders.

"Our clients want broad bipartisan representation," says Federalist Group managing director Wayne Berman. "It was a business decision."

Conservative activist Grover Norquist, who conceived the K Street Project in the late 1980s but now claims he never approved of DeLay's tactics, insists his quest to free business from its "Stockholm syndrome" isn't dead.

But the recent trend toward Democrat hires demonstrates the fallacy in Norquist's vision. He believed corporations could be persuaded to choose ideology over access to power. In Washington, though, access still matters most. Top of page