K Street Waits, Watches Rangel

K Street waits, watches Rangel

Rep. Charles B. Rangel (D-N.Y.), chairman of one of the most powerful congressional committees, is under fire and under investigation. What’s a lobbyist with business before his House Ways and Means Committee to do?

When a Capitol Hill giant like Rangel begins to totter — and while his fate is far from decided, the ongoing ethics investigation into his alleged financial misdeeds creates a cloud of uncertainty around his ability to lead the panel — the K Street community scrambles to anticipate and exploit the next move.

Politico spoke with several lobbyists — all of whom requested anonymity as long as Rangel remains a powerful chairman — and a couple of experts to explain how Rangel’s troubles are playing on K Street. So here’s an amalgamated checklist that smart lobbyists with business before Ways and Means will be ticking through as Rangel fights to keep his gavel.

1. Check his vital signs. Lobbyists are pounding the Capitol’s hallways in search of news about how safe Rangel is with the Democratic leadership. So far, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and others are sticking by him until the House ethics committee completes its investigation.

But that investigation grew longer when the ethics panel announced it was expanding its inquiry to include allegations, first reported by The New York Times, that Rangel helped an oil company retain a lucrative tax loophole after it donated $1 million to the Charles B. Rangel Center for Public Service at the City College of New York.

The expanded investigation means the panel’s report is likely to come out far later than the early January date that Pelosi initially had in mind for a resolution.

Lobbyists also want to get the best reading possible on the direction of the ethics committee’s investigation, though that front should be rather quiet until the panel starts debating what action to take. Some lobbyists are even in touch with the many investigative reporters digging up all the dirt they can on Rangel.

2. Study up on the parlor game. While it’s now merely a topic of speculation, the biggest question on K Street is who would replace Rangel, should the investigation’s findings force him to give up the gavel.

“You have to spend a lot of time being ready for that eventuality and assessing as best you can what a possible successor’s priorities are going to be,” said one strategist whose firm has clients with business before the Ways and Means Committee this year.

Lobbyists have to face questions such as: Does the leadership change help or hurt your client? Can you get a fair hearing from the new chairman?

“You’re doing business as usual, but you’re playing three- and four- and five-dimensional chess on other issues,” the strategist said.

The Ways and Means line of succession isn’t clear. The ouster of Rep. John Dingell (D-Mich.) by Rep. Henry A. Waxman (D-Calif.) as chairman of the House Energy and Commerce Committee last month threw strict seniority out the window.

Democrats next in line in seniority on Ways and Means — Reps. Pete Stark of California, Sander M. Levin of Michigan and Jim McDermott of Washington — are considered too liberal by many observers.

Some lobbyists speculate that Pelosi would tap Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.), an African-American, to assure the Congressional Black Caucus there was no racial dimension to Rangel’s removal.

The panel’s fifth-ranking Democrat — Rep. Richard E. Neal of Massachusetts — is well-liked by the business community. But most business leaders would prefer to see Rangel remain in the top spot, rather than deal with the uncertainty of a fight over the chairmanship.

“We’ve been able to work with Rangel,” said one Republican business lobbyist. “He has an open door with the business community, I think, for the most part, on most of our issues.”

Nonetheless, lobbyists will keep their ears open. Should Rangel’s position continue to worsen, would-be successors will test the waters — and lobbyists will start strategizing around the contenders in earnest.

3. Work the angles. It’s not just a matter of figuring out who would succeed Rangel. Lobbyists must also consider who else to cultivate, both inside and outside the committee, “to make sure they don’t close doors to other people that will gain power as a result of the fall or in the reduction of power of a person like Rangel,” said James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies at American University.

Smart lobbyists generally keep all available doors open — especially on a committee as important as Ways and Means — but as trouble for Rangel mounts, the degree to which other members are worked will increase.

“There’s never a power vacuum in politics. Never. And so if someone is losing power, everyone is very polite and supportive of the chairman, ... but they’re also maneuvering,” said Thurber, who teaches several courses on lobbying.

K Streeters certainly have their antennae up for changes in Rangel’s clout among committee members as well as with leadership. It appears secure for now, but things could always change as the investigation drags on.

This is nothing new for K Street, or Capitol Hill, for that matter. Dingell hasn’t had Pelosi’s ear for two years, despite being chairman of the Energy and Commerce Committee, and lobbyists shifted their strategy accordingly — still lobbying the chairman but also seeking out other members who could help them achieve their goals.

Rep. Spencer Bachus (R-Ala.), the ranking member on the House Financial Services Committee, had very little power during negotiations on the $700 billion financial industry bailout, one Republican lobbyist observed, but that didn’t stop lobbyists from figuring out who on the GOP side had the decision-making power, such as Rep. Roy Blunt of Missouri.

“Water’s going to find an outlet. Lobbyists are going to find out who’s making a decision, and if it’s not Rangel, somebody is,” the lobbyist said.

4. Take a deep breath. No world-shaking changes have happened — yet. For the time being, very little has actually changed. Rangel has the backing of Pelosi, other party leaders and the large New York congressional delegation, despite editorials urging him to step down and Republicans hyping the ethical problems.

Even if Rangel stepped aside temporarily while the ethics investigation finished, there would be little practical effect, said one Democratic lobbyist. Under current House rules, Stark would step in as acting chairman, but he would not be expected to change the committee’s agenda or otherwise do more than carry out the procedural functions, the lobbyist said. And Rangel’s committee staff — the main focus of lobbyists with business there — would remain in place.

There’s also a time cushion before any major moves are likely to happen in the committee. The massive economic stimulus package is being assembled largely by Pelosi’s aides and elsewhere — in coordination with the incoming Obama administration. So lobbyists are focusing much of their attention on the leadership.

So despite the contingency planning, lobbyists are stuck with a “cross that bridge when we get there” situation. And the ethics committee report is the bridge.

If the report diminishes Rangel’s standing with Pelosi and other Democratic leaders, Rangel is out, said Thomas Mann, a congressional expert with the Brookings Institution.

That the ethics investigation will take longer than expected “certainly complicates matters for Rangel, for the leadership,” Mann said. “It does make it more awkward, but I think the leadership has signaled they’re not going to force him out until there is some action by the ethics committee. So they’re just going to live with it.”

John Bresnahan contributed to this story.

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