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Power Play: Embassies Make Their Case to Congress Via Lobby Shops

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Before arriving in Washington as Trinidad and Tobago's ambassador in February, Neil Parsan did what any savvy envoy hoping to influence D.C. bigwigs does. He studied Congress. "I read and researched the structure of Congress," said Parsan. "I had to find out which committees dealt with our issues."

Impacting the shape and direction of legislation affecting the national interests of Trinidad and Tobago is the ultimate objective for Parsan — as it is for almost every single ambassador working in the seat of American government.

Indeed, though it is rarely discussed, the international diplomatic community lobbies Washington policymakers just like any other political actor. Ambassadors are the elite members of their home nations — usually the cream of the foreign service crop. To busy U.S. policymakers, however, they are just one more special interest pushing for influence — a prestigious one, surely, but another interest group all the same. Furthermore, ambassadors cannot vote or donate to political campaigns, making them far less valuable than other constituents. (In August, a federal appeals court upheld a ban on campaign contributions by foreigners.) And those constituents are almost always more concerned with domestic matters than foreign policy.

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Photo: B. Bourdages / Fotolia

So to compete for attention, ambassadors need to roll up their sleeves and think outside the box, using their country's leverage, whether in the form of trade and investment or military ties, while also utilizing their personal contacts — and sometimes retaining expensive Washington lobbying firms for their contacts.

Lobbying is an intrinsic part of politics in the nation's capital, and despite the occasional moves to limit the business of buying influence in Congress, the industry is only set to grow with the U.S. government's current frenzy to slash spending, as those on the chopping block look to lobbyists to help them avoid the axe.

The State Department has a website listing the city's top lobbying firms, a resource Parsan tapped. The ambassador refers to these public relations, lobbying and law firms as "intermediaries," and they are not his preferred form of interaction with Congress. Parsan said he relies 70 percent on individual contact with legislators and their staff, and only 30 percent on lobbying and PR shops.

Nations such as Trinidad and Tobago make up a small fraction of the hundreds of businesses and other entities that regularly descend on Capitol Hill. The big money in lobbying comes from major corporate interests with deep pockets such as ExxonMobil. Still, there is little doubt foreign countries devote huge sums to working the American political system. And the world's richest, most powerful countries are not necessarily the biggest spenders.

According to records obtained by the Sunlight Foundation, a nonprofit organization tracking money in politics, the Cayman Islands in 2009 spent more than $7.8 million to promote the islands to American tourists. The United Arab Emirates followed, shelling out $5.9 million in 2009 to lobby the U.S. government. The Republic of Congo spent $3.9 million doing the same. Other major players include Britain, Japan, Turkey, Morocco, Saudi Arabia, South Korea and Equatorial Guinea, among many others.

Reports filed under the Foreign Agents Registration Act (FARA, passed in 1938 to track Nazi propaganda) show that in 2009, individual lobbyists communicated with lawmakers or their staff on behalf of foreign clients an astounding 17,000 times. Foreign governments, political parties and government-controlled entities spent $60 million influencing Washington that year. Trinidad and Tobago paid lobbying firm Ainsley Gill and Associates $3.5 million in 2008 and 2009, and nearly $200,000 in 2008 to Ogilvy Public Relations Worldwide.

For policymakers, dealing with lobbyists representing foreign entities has become routine. Not surprisingly, the most powerful lawmakers on Capitol Hill get the most action. Then-House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and her staffers had 85 contacts with lobbyists for various foreign clients in 2009. Many members of the House or Senate foreign affairs or homeland security committees met with foreign-hired lobbyists more than 50 times. Several prominent former lawmakers have also signed on to represent foreign countries, among them ex-Senate leader Bob Dole (who represents Taiwan and Montenegro) and former House Appropriations Chairman Robert Livingston (who represents Turkey and others).

Most recently, the Podesta Group brought in Frank Lowenstein, a former staff director of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and principal foreign advisor to Sen. John Kerry, to expand its international portfolio. Foreign lobbying in fact has become a boon to firms like the Podesta Group that charge tens of thousands of dollars in retainer fees each month. Other big-name shops include DLA Piper, BGR Group and Qorvis Communications, which has represented a range of countries from Cyprus to Saudi Arabia. Indeed, the governments that indirectly lobby Capitol Hill are as varied as the causes for which they try to curry favor.

For example, the Georgian Embassy spends about $1 million a year on K Street lobby groups, currently employing Orion Strategies and the Podesta Group, largely to make its case against its perennial nemesis Russia, which has also turned to lobbyists over the years. South Korea hired the Glover Park Group, Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld, and Thomas Capitol Partners in recent years to push for its long-stalled free trade agreement with the United States. The Cayman Islands have worked to keep their status as a tax haven from being eroded by increased regulation. Morocco has fought to sway opinion against Algeria in its long-standing battle over the disputed territory of Western Sahara, mirroring efforts by Algeria to do the same. Armenia and Turkey regularly lock lobbying horns over the Armenian genocide question. The UAE has sought greater access to U.S. nuclear technology. Poland turned to K Street to rework the planned U.S. missile defense shield on its soil after President Obama came into office.

Many of these issues naturally deal with top foreign policy priorities on Washington's agenda as well, from energy to military matters. The Kurds, for instance, have been some of the busiest movers and shakers in town, with the Kurdistan Regional Government shelling out more than $5 million since 2007 to further the interests of its oil-rich autonomous region and bring in American businesses as the Iraq war winds down.

More recently, the Arab Spring has shone an uncomfortable light on some of the backroom dealings with states such as Egypt, Bahrain, Saudi Arabia and Libya, from arms purchases to favorable oil deals, as the New York Times documented in an article earlier this year.

"Just last year, three of the biggest names in the lobbying club — Tony Podesta, Robert L. Livingston and Toby Moffett — pulled off a coup for one of their clients, Egypt. They met with dozens of lawmakers and helped stall a Senate bill that called on Egypt to curtail human rights abuses. Ultimately, those abuses helped bring the government down," Eric Lichtblau wrote in the newspaper. "Now the Washington lobbyists for Arab nations find themselves in a precarious spot, as they try to stay a step ahead of the fast-changing events without being seen as aiding despots and dictators."

Of course, aiding despots and dictators has been a time-honored tradition in an industry that gets paid to put a positive spin on a client's otherwise negative reputation. Notably, Teodoro Obiang Nguema Mbasogo, longtime dictator of Equatorial Guinea, has plowed millions into rehabilitating his image and that of his energy-rich but perpetually poor (except for the elites) nation.

Lawyer Lanny J. Davis has represented Equatorial Guinea (as have groups like Qorvis) along with a host of other questionable clients, including the embattled government of former Côte d'Ivoire President Laurent Gbagbo when he defied the international community by refusing to concede his election defeat, nearly sparking a civil war.

Industry heavyweight Bob Livingston became associated with another notorious figure when he worked to help Libyan strongman Muammar Qaddafi, who employed several Washington firms after he renounced nuclear weapons and tried to normalize relations with the West. But even before his recent ouster, Qaddafi's erratic behavior was too much for Livingston, who had been working to resolve legal claims surrounding the Pan Am bombing but ended his Libya contract in 2009.

On the flip side, in their fight against Qaddafi, rebels with the fledging National Transitional Council turned to Patton Boggs this summer to help them obtain diplomatic recognition as the "legitimate government of the sovereign nation of Libya," according to documents, with an eye on gaining access to billions of dollars in frozen assets, which they eventually did.

So whether the purpose is less-than savory or simply practical, there is an obvious reason for the use of lobbying firms in Washington: they work. The investment research firm Strategas prepared a report comparing the economic performance of the 50 companies that spend the most on lobbying with the S&P 500. According to the Economist magazine, "In aggregate the results have been stunning, comparable to the returns of the most blistering hedge fund." On average, the index outperformed the S&P 500 by 11 percent a year. "The outright return on lobbying costs, according to one of the various studies that served as inspiration for the Strategas index, was $220 for each $1 spent," the Economist wrote. By this measure, hiring American lobbyists seems less an extravagance than a wise investment that pays big dividends.

Not all foreign nations hire these "intermediaries," however. Smaller, poorer countries that have less international clout tend to be the ones most in need of external assistance in Washington, even if they are the nations that can least afford the expenditures. The big boys have a natural advantage in that they have the funds to hire lobbyists — but often don't need to anyway.

Canada, for instance, sharing a border with the United States and being its largest trading partner, doesn't employ the services of a single public relations or lobbying firm, according to Deanna Horton, Canada's minister of congressional, public and intergovernmental affairs. "If you look at the location of the Canadian Embassy, it's so close to Congress — it reflects the importance of Congress in our eyes," said Horton. "We deal with both the administration and Congress."

Indeed, many embassies have dedicated attachés and diplomats whose job is to specifically liaise with legislators and members of the White House (also see "Globalization Increasingly Blurs Line Between Domestic, Foreign Affairs" in the November 2010 issue of The Washington Diplomat).

Horton says that whenever possible, it is wise to build alliances with nations that have similar interests. "On any number of given issues, we will work with other stakeholders and build alliances," she said. "We leverage everything we can." Trade in particular is an issue where Canada can work with other nations. "One of our biggest challenges is in advocating for an integrated market," she noted.

At the same time, each country has to look out for itself. To that end, Canada goes to great lengths to remind U.S. policymakers that America's problems on its southern border — illegal immigration and drug trafficking — are not shared on its northern border. "Our main work is in informing policymakers, not in trying to influence them," Horton said. Close geography, culture, language, history and trade ties surely assist in that effort.

Even with such built-in advantages, a nation like Canada occasionally resorts to cold calling policymakers and their staffs. To boost face time, Horton prefers having Canadian officials come to Washington and arranging for lawmakers to take trips to Canada (junkets are a favorite congressional pastime).

Whatever the advantages wealthy nations like Canada have in the Washington spin machine, Trinidad and Tobago and similar nations still participate in the race. For all the resources the country devotes to lobbying, Parsan maintains there is no substitute for Trinidad and Tobago's face-to-face meetings with legislators and their staffs. "I call and go directly to them," he said. "Sometimes Trinidad and Tobago will go by itself, and other times it will go with like-minded nations in collaboration."

Parsan will team up with Jamaica, El Salvador and Costa Rica to "sensitize Congress to the deep impact" its trade decisions have on Caribbean and Latin nations. Specifically, Trinidad and Tobago, a major provider of liquefied natural gas to the United States, is carefully watching what Congress does to ethanol tariffs, the Caribbean Basin Initiative (a program providing trade benefits to Caribbean countries), and the debt ceiling-related spending cuts.

The fate of ethanol tariffs and subsidies in proposed spending cuts may seem obscure in the larger domestic debate over tax or entitlement reform, for example, but they illustrate how even minor provisions in American-crafted legislation can have big consequences for foreign nations and may even be felt worldwide.

For Parsan, that is the most important fact he wants to impart to legislators in his congressional meetings. In particular, decisions made on Capitol Hill about tariffs on Brazilian ethanol have the potential to greatly hinder or encourage production in some Caribbean nations. The United States currently maintains a 54-cent-per-gallon tariff on ethanol from Brazil, so Caribbean nations buy Brazilian ethanol, process and export it to the United States for a tidy profit. But in its attempts to balance the U.S. books, Congress is likely to remove the tariff.

"We try and sensitive Congress vis-à-vis the deep impact the decision would have on Caribbean nations, while it has only a minimal impact on the American economy," Parsan explained.

He says he has always been "generously received," but he concedes that there is sometimes "a lack of sensitivity" on the part of U.S. lawmakers about their decisions regarding ethanol. The recently appointed ambassador has had about six meetings with members of Congress, and he is aiming for four or five more. Each one lasts from 20 minutes to one hour, "depending on the level of understanding" of the issue on the part of legislators.

"We try and make them consider the social impact of their decisions on Caribbean nations," Parsan said, noting that he attempts to meet with whoever has a part in writing the bill. He admits that in such a crowded and competitive arena, he is "fighting an uphill battle," but is hopeful nonetheless. "At least we left with them having more consideration for our position."

"We cannot take a position on the debt talks," the ambassador adds, "but Trinidad and Tobago exports a lot of natural gas to the U.S., and so if the American economic conditions deteriorate, we are hurt as well."

It's true that while foreign governments cannot officially take sides in the ongoing debt talks, they have a tremendous stake in what comes out of the so-called "super committee," the congressional panel charged with slicing at least $1.2 trillion from the federal budget over the next decade. For example, in the line of fire is foreign assistance, with the State Department poised to take a significant budget hit. And even though foreign aid only accounts for a tiny sliver of total federal spending, it still has a big impact in many nations.

The impact of reining in federal debt will be huge for Americans and foreigners alike, which is why in six weeks alone, nearly 200 companies and special interests reported lobbying the 12-member panel, according to Politico — a blitz that will continue until Nov. 23, when the committee is set to wrap up its work.

In fact, a tally of congressional data prepared by the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonpartisan watchdog group, found that an astonishing 109 current and/or former lobbyists are past aides to lawmakers serving on the super committee, a reflection of the revolving door of powerbrokers in and out of Congress. Over the next few weeks, these lobbyists will be highly sought after for their special access to their former bosses.

Foreign nations turn to these insiders as well. According to the nonprofit Project on Government Oversight, in the past year, all 12 members of the super committee have been contacted by at least one foreign-hired lobbyist. Over that same period, all but two members received campaign contributions from foreign lobbyists. Based on FARA records filed in 2011, members of the super committee have also received more than $50,000 in direct campaign contributions from foreign lobbyists, and much more through fundraisers held by those lobbying firms. It's a legal paradox — foreign governments cannot give money to U.S. politicians, but their lobby groups, who also represent a number of other clients, can.

Paradox or not, lobbying is a fact of life in Washington, and everyone from ambassadors to medical associations line up to protect their turf. It is just one more instrument in the diplomat's American toolkit to further their national interests and make their case on Capitol Hill.


About the Author

Jordan Michael Smith is a freelance writer in Washington, D.C., who has written for The New York Times, The Washington Post and The Boston Globe.

Last Edited on June 17, 2014