What Do Lobbyists Actually Do?


Politico’s Theodoric Meyer has a profile today of Brian Ballard, who was Donald Trump’s Florida finance chair for his 2016 campaign and who brought his lobbying firm, Ballard Partners, to Washington right around the time Trump was inaugurated. As grueling as it is to read about the lives and lies of Washington lobbyists, the profile is very instructive for readers who are wondering how they get so much damn money ($3.36 billion was spent on federal lobbying in 2017, not counting the further billions likely spent on unregistered lobbying) and what all that money buys. What are they doing with their time?

As the piece makes clear, Ballard’s personal connections with Trump—he has dinner with the president “every few weeks,” one lobbyist in the piece estimated—are basically all that matter for his business. Ballard is cast as a sort of Trump whisperer. Whereas everyone else in DC is stuck in the past, having learned the trade under presidents whose brains were largely functional, Ballard knows how the administration really works. His clients say he’s “been able to figure out how the Trump administration works in a way no one else has.”

But this success is less about divining Trump’s pudding brain and more about Ballard’s understanding of who’s in and who’s out. Meyers writes that he has “helped clients like [tobacco company] Reynolds map out who’s really calling the shots in Trump’s administration, where aides and even Cabinet members can be influential one week and out of favor the next.”

And that’s what it really boils down to. Paying a firm to lobby on your behalf can sometimes be about skill and acumen, or about policy information—lobbyists often produce research that they hand over to overworked Congressional staffers who don’t have the time to build expertise on the issues they work on.

But most of the time—and particularly in the case of Ballard—when a company hires a lobbyist, they’re paying for their connections. They are paying the lobbyist for who they are, not what they do. That’s why so many former members of Congress go on to work for lobbying firms: They can easily call up their old colleagues and put pressure on them to do whatever it is their client, be it American Airlines or the Turkish government, is after.

And that spending pays off for these firms:

Ballard and his partners pulled in $550,000 last year lobbying the White House and the Justice Department for the GEO Group, the private-prison operator, which won the administration’s first immigrant-detention contract in April, less than three months after signing Ballard.

(Other Ballard clients who have paid hundreds of thousands of dollars to understand what’s going on in the Trump White House include Amazon, Dish, H&R Block and LG Electronics, though I guess Amazon could have saved the $280,000 they paid the firm and just followed Trump on Twitter.)

Yet, in the Politico piece, Ballard repeatedly appears offended at the insinuation that he might use his connections to lobby politicians. The piece claims Ballard “has taken pains to avoid the appearance of cashing in on his relationship with the president,” and that he “refuses to speak on the record about how often he talks with the president.” (Lucky, then, that another lobbyist was there to tell Meyer it was every few weeks.) At another point, Ballard says, “If it’s anyone who says I want to pay you to set up a meeting with the president or whatever, we just say no out of hand.” Meyer also credulously passes along Ballard’s claims of innocence about his time as a Florida lobbyist:

Ballard spent nearly two decades figuring out how to dine and golf with Florida’s governors without abusing his relationships with them. He told the St. Petersburg Times a decade ago that he avoided lobbying [Charlie] Crist unless the governor’s staffers were present. “I don’t sneak it in while we’re shooting the breeze,” Ballard told the paper. “It doesn’t work that way. It would be gross.”
A few weeks after the election, the Ledger of Lakeland, Florida, reported that Ballard’s firm — called Smith, Ballard, Bradshaw and Logan at the time — had something other Tallahassee lobbying firms “only wish they could claim: an undeniably special relationship with [Jeb] Bush that is being cautiously defended.” Ballard brashly told the paper his firm had no more access to Bush than anyone else. “Anyone who thinks that when they are hiring us they have secured some special niche in the administration is wrong and should save their money,” Ballard said. “Don’t hire us. Go somewhere else.”

Horseshit! As the piece makes clear, in subtext if not text, Ballard’s connections with Florida Republicans are exactly why he was a successful lobbyist there, and his proximity to Trump is obviously why he’s successful in DC. He is just smarter than most of the idiots in Trump World, like Corey Lewandowski, who Meyer says “hasn’t been able to resist boasting about his relationship with Trump as he hustles for clients.” If all you care about is taking home the biggest paycheck and not getting your name in the press, you don’t have to brag about it. You can just give quotes to the press about how gosh darn wrong it would be to cash in on your relationships, then go and do precisely that.

If Ballard actually believed the shit he says about not using his connections to lobby, not only would he be a huge moron, he’d be a bad lobbyist. Lucky for him, lobbyist isn’t a profession where honesty matters all that much.

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