Democratic Firm Learns To Do Business With New Congress

SO WHAT DO YOU DO these days if you're a law firm in D.C. used to handling the lobbying and lawyering interests of Northwest firms with your heavily Democratic staff? Hire Republicans, of course.

WASHINGTON - In just about any other city, and most other lines of work, Emanuel "Manny" Rouvelas and Jack Abramoff would have little to do with each other.

As chief counsel to the late Sen. Warren Magnuson's Commerce Committee, Rouvelas played a key role in expanding the presence of the federal government in Washington state. He is one reason government is bigger now than it was in the 1960s. And when he left the Commerce Committee in 1972, Rouvelas opened an exclusively Democratic D.C. law firm devoted to representing many of the Northwest interests over which Magnuson's committee had authority.

Abramoff spent the past decade working with the Christian Coalition and conservative Republicans, orchestrating their takeover of state parties and Congress. He is an adviser to House Speaker Newt Gingrich and an advocate of downsizing government. He has produced a comic book poking fun at Democrats and pork-barrel spending, and he believes civilization will go to hell in a handbasket unless kids are allowed to pray in school.

They are the strangest of bedfellows.

Yet Rouvelas last year hired Abramoff as a lobbyist in the D.C. law office of Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds. Abramoff isn't a lawyer, and he doesn't know much about the Northwest, but Abramoff reflects the changing political landscape here. He offers Preston Gates, and its clients, the assurance they will have access to the conservative Republicans now running Congress.

"Certainly there are my contacts to the conservative wing of the Republican Party," he says, explaining why he was hired. "But I also bring an ability to analyze the needs of a client and explain them to an insular group (in Congress) working on a conservative agenda."

Abramoff's most visible accomplishment in his brief stint as a government-affairs counselor at Preston Gates has been to bring the Mighty Morphin Power Rangers to Washington to entertain the children of newly sworn-in Republican members of Congress. An entertainment agent, movie producer and arranger of book deals for conservative authors, he's expected to bring at least some of his clients to Preston Gates for their legal work.

Less flashy, but probably more valuable, is the uniquely Republican perspective he brings to developing a strategy to counter certain proposed budget cuts.

One agency Congress has considered eliminating is the Federal Maritime Commission. One argument Preston lobbyists intend to use against doing that is it would shift a costly legal burden to ports - including one of its clients, the Port of Seattle - resulting in an unfunded mandate, something Congress has promised to stop doing.

Abramoff's hiring was a recognition by Preston Gates that a very different group of people has taken over Congress; a type of Republican the law firm wasn't sure it understood or would have access to. After the November election, Rouvelas did a quick inventory of professional staff and determined it was evenly divided between Democrats and Republicans. But Preston Gates didn't have a conservative, Christian Coalition Republican with strong ties to the new Republican leadership.

"He came out of a wing of the party we did not have," says Rouvelas.

But while Abramoff's politics and social agenda may be different from Rouvelas', his job will be quite similar. Leadership in Congress may change. Republicans and Democrats come and go. What doesn't change is the behind-the-scenes persuasion between often inexperienced members of Congress and lobbyists who have been here longer.

So while the news from Washington will be about budget cuts and downsizing the federal government, the job at Preston Gates will be to make sure those cuts don't come out of the hides of clients.

That job would seem to be contrary to what this Congress professes to be all about. But lobbying relies on the powers of persuasion, and the best lobbyists come to meetings armed with good reasons why something should or should not happen.

Recently, the lobbyist for Alaska Airlines dropped by to see 5th District Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Spokane. In tow was the company's CEO, Ray Vecci. The conversation was casual and friendly, what's known here as a meet and greet. Mention was made that Alaska Air employs about 50 people in the Spokane area and operates 23 flights daily between Washington state's two largest cities. Eventually, the discussion turned to the airline industry's desire to continue its exemption from the 4-cent-a-gallon aviation-fuel tax, which expires in September.

What Nethercutt learned at that meeting will complicate his job of helping balance the federal budget. Imposing the fuel tax on the industry would contribute at least $500 million annually toward balancing the budget, something voters, Nethercutt and the new Republican majority say they want to accomplish. The airlines, however, argue the tax would hurt their recovery and make it more difficult to buy the new, quieter planes the federal government requires they fly by 2000.

That issue alone affects the Boeing Co. and numerous Preston Gates clients, including Delta Airlines, Reno Air and the ports of Seattle, New Jersey and New York.

And it's not just the threat of higher taxes that get clients riled. In the Northwest, Preston Gates represents Microsoft, Burlington Northern, McCaw Cellular, Westinghouse, the University of Washington, the Snohomish Public Utility District and the fishing, timber and paper industries.

Each has different needs, and often they are varied. Microsoft faces a continued threat that some federal judge will declare it a monopoly and order the company broken up. The company also would like more freedom to export its encrypted software to foreign companies.

Westinghouse and its employees in Eastern Washington have a deep interest in the continued cleanup of the Hanford Nuclear Reservation.

McCaw and Microsoft each has a huge financial stake in how Congress rewrites the Federal Communications Act.

"To a large degree, what we do is represent home," says Rouvelas. "We all come from that area. We work on issues we care about from places we grew up in."

It helps Preston Gates that from 2,500 miles away, the federal government can look like a pretty scary, threatening place that keeps changing and is virtually impossible to understand. Times like these, when government is reinventing itself, make it even more confusing for clients but that translates into increased business for companies that know their way through the muck and mire, like Preston Gates.

The firm wasn't always able to promise that. In 1980, the D.C. office had nary a Republican on staff. And that was the year Ronald Reagan was elected president and Republicans took control of the Senate.

"It was a traumatic time that saw thousands of Democrats, and most of our contacts, on the street looking for jobs," says Rouvelas.

He wasn't about to let that happen this election. So he hired the very conservative Abramoff, and offered a job to ousted House Speaker Tom Foley (who chose to hang his shingle elsewhere).

To cover all its bases, the firm hired Werner Brandt, the former House sergeant-at-arms. Then, to make sure clients knew about the changes, it beefed up its public-relations office and sent attorneys on a cross-country tour to offer assurances Preston Gates understood, and was prepared to do business with, this new Congress.