Power shift in DC spurs public affairs strategies

WASHINGTON: The day following the November 7 elections, in which the Democratic Party assumed control of both the House of Representatives and Senate, marked a new beginning for special interests of all political stripes seeking to shape the agenda of the next Congress.

WASHINGTON: The day following the November 7 elections, in which the Democratic Party assumed control of both the House of Representatives and Senate, marked a new beginning for special interests of all political stripes seeking to shape the agenda of the next Congress.

In Washington alone, dozens of scheduled press conferences, many occurring simultaneously at different venues around town, featured organization officials and other political commentators presenting their views on how exactly the Democrats had managed to regain control of Congress and what that meant for future legislation.

At the National Press Club, for instance, the Sierra Club and other environmental groups argued that concern about US energy supplies shaped a number of congressional races, evident in the many campaign ads that sought to tie incumbents to "big oil."

"We're hopeful that given the amount of attention [paid] to energy concerns that we'll see more work in Congress and on the state level," Sierra Club national press secretary David Willett told PRWeek. "Obviously, we'll be talking to the lawmakers and pointing out the role energy played with voters and that they clearly want change."

Besides the expected official Republican and Democratic party organizations, other groups weighing in on November 8 with predictions about what issues will loom large in the new Congress were the AFL-CIO, Common Cause, the American Conservative Union, Moveon.org, AARP, Emily's List, and many others.

Trent Duffy, founder of Duffy Public Relations Strategies and a recent White House deputy press secretary, said post-election media analysis and the flood of commentary by special interests following an election are nothing new, but are perhaps more significant with this election because of the dramatic shift in power.

Certainly, the threat of hearings on the Iraq War, the energy industry, or prescription drugs looms more clearly now that the Democrats will definitely take control, and that means new opportunities for public affairs agencies experienced in prepping executives for Capitol Hill hearings and other aspects of crisis management.

But while House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) detailed what some initial goals of the new majority will be during the first 100 days of the 110th Congress, including a minimum-wage increase and tax breaks on college tuition, exactly what actions may occur with the issues that PR and public affairs pros care most about are still unknown, Duffy said.

"The stuff that drives the Washington PR market is still massively unknown," he said, at least in part because several House leadership positions are in play, including majority whip. "What are they going to do on energy, or taxes on research and development? The Democrats don't know. Everyone is trying like crazy to have their policy in the agenda."

While Republican lawmakers and conservative political groups had to take their own temperature - President George W. Bush called the defeat a "thumping," and Gov. Mitt Romney (R-MA) said the party had lost touch with its roots - there were silver linings for the conservative cause. Let Freedom Ring president Colin Hanna noted that, whatever the race results, seven of eight "marriage defining" state amendments passed, with the eighth still too close to call at press time.

Certainly a Democrat-controlled Congress makes a federal amendment tougher to pass, Hanna admitted, but he touted his organization's amendment advocacy and its Pennsylvania pastor-based get-out-the-vote network, which registered some 25,000 voters, as areas where "our work was vindicated and validated" and likely to resonate with lawmakers.

The turnover in leadership in Congress automatically opens up a number of committee staffer jobs to the Democrats, including various communications jobs, but Ruder Finn Public Relations managing director Neil Dhillon, a former Capitol Hill staffer and Clinton administration official, said he didn't expect any large exodus from the public affairs world to Congress; that will come in 2008, when a new presidency means new political appointments at the various government agencies.

While Republican communications experts may remain in demand with agencies because of the ongoing close divide within Congress, Dhillon warned that the proclaimed spirit of bi-partisanship in the new Congress won't last, despite vows to the contrary. "I've been doing this since 1983 and every time the honeymoon is just a couple of days, and that's about it," he said. "The two sides have differences of opinion that are just too varied."

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