December 11, 2012 / 11:50 PM / 5 years ago

Slow pace of U.S. 'cliff' talks a must, given sway of lobbyists

* Veteran senators says speeding up is dangerous

* Too many specifics hazardous to a deal, says Conrad

* Concern about entitlement programs if long-term deal struck

By Patricia Zengerle and Richard Cowan

WASHINGTON, Dec 11 (Reuters) - While some bemoan the slow pace of talks on the “fiscal cliff” and the lack of specifics offered in the negotiations, one seasoned deficit hawk in Washington, North Dakota Democratic Senator Kent Conrad, thinks it’s the only way to get the job done.

If Congress moved too fast and proposals got too specific too soon, interest groups would kill everything off, he said.

“I don’t know what’s going on in that room,” he said of the meetings between Democratic President Barack Obama and House of Representatives Speaker John Boehner, a Republican.

“But I do know that if you have too much time, that just gives time for all the opposing groups to organize” against a deal to avert the cliff, a series of major tax increases and spending cuts set to take effect starting early next year that economists say could lead to recession.

The right time to get a deal? “About Tuesday of next week.”

He added that while he had “no insider information. I just know how this place works.”

In fact, the city has been swarming with lobbyists - the highly paid and the unpaid - for months.

The defense industry lobby, anti-tax activist Grover Norquist, and AARP - the seniors lobby group - are only the best known members of what is politely called the influence industry.

Just last week, a small group concerned about cuts to social programs in general peppered Republican Senator Rob Portman of Ohio with so many questions that he had to abruptly halt a speech he was delivering.

Some 300 executives of charitable organizations were on Capitol Hill at roughly the same time, to lobby against limiting the deduction for charitable contributions.

Another organization, concerned about social services generally, showed up to seek divine intervention, singing hymns and saying prayers.


And it isn’t just happening in Washington.

Concerned constitutents have been regularly appearing in force at the home district offices of members of Congress. Republican Representative Bob Goodlatte’s Lynchburg, Virginia, offices were the site of a protest on Monday.

Federal workers have been demonstrating in cities across the country to protect their particular agencies’ budgets.

Each comes armed with reasons as to why their cause is special.

Advocates from universities and research institutions have been among the most vocal and well-organized, fearing for the budget of the National Institutes of Health, among other agencies.

“I don’t see why you would cut off the funding for basic research at a time when you’re trying to gin up the economy and get people back to work,” said April Burke, president of Lewis-Burke Associates, a lobbying and consulting firm focused on higher education and science.

But it’s a feature of “across-the-board” spending cuts that nothing is special. That makes the lobbying job tougher.

In ordinary times, lobbying tends to focus more narrowly on specific programs that might be on the chopping block in a particular sub-committee of Congress. Activists can refine their efforts to concentrate on particular members of Congress and their staffs for intensive persuasion.

But “across-the-board” cuts are indiscriminate. They could hit every program that does not have the protected status of “mandatory expenditure,” such as the bulk of the Medicare and Medicaid healthcare programs for the elderly and the poor respectively.

But these mandatory entitlement programs could be on the chopping block later, in the event a deal is reached, so much of the energy is aimed at protecting them.

Sarah Binder, a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, said much of the lobbying is probably about 2013, when lawmakers could take on tax reform and a longer-term debt plan.

“My hunch is they want to put their markers down to make sure that when a full-fledged battle erupts next year, they have made clear to lawmakers where their constituencies stand,” she said.

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