Message men, lobbyists, grassroots firms and lawyers are raking in cash as Congress and the White House argue about how to avoid a fiscal calamity at the end of the year -- threatening spending cuts, tax hikes and changes to entitlement programs.
It's a classic Washington phenomenon: Ahead of a major deal, corporate clients and other groups pay a premium to the Washington influence machinery to make sure their interests are protected.
Republican and Democratic consultants say the recent surge in newly inked contracts is particularly good news since the presidential election has meant a slow six months in town.
"It's springtime in Washington in January," said Rich Gold, head of Holland & Knight's public policy practice, giving the example that his firm went on eight client pitches this week, up from about one per week two months ago.
Republican operative Jade West of the National Association of Wholesale-Distributors said this lame-duck session is even hotter than most.
"Everybody has got a nose under the tent," West said of activity surrounding the fiscal cliff. "We've got major tax policy, fiscal policy and everybody is engaged. You are seeing a coalition to defend a reduction in tax dividends and several others that have been in existence. More have popped up on the other side of the spectrum."
West runs the Tax Relief Coalition, which has ramped up its efforts asking members to activate their grass-roots networks.
The Campaign to Fix the Debt has had the most stratospheric rise. By far the most high-profile group to come out of the fiscal crisis, the group has grown to 80 employees, anticipates having 22 state offices online soon with new operations in Arizona, Indiana, Utah, Minnesota and Louisiana and is about to announce 2,500 small-business leaders have joined the campaign.
While the lobbying has been left largely to its president, Maya MacGuineas, and its CEO members so far to press their case on Capitol Hill, the coalition is also looking to bring on additional manpower in its legislative strategy team, according to sources familiar with the organization.
"Our intention is to build the largest grass-roots mobilization campaign on this issue," said Fix the Debt spokesman Jon Romano. "We firmly believe in a campaign built on an in-house campaign. The press shop is here, we have a rapid response team, folks that are focused on national TV and radio and a daily national team."
The coalition, which has raised $42 million by engaging CEOs to write checks for as much as $1 million is also outsourcing some of its workload.
A trio of senior Washington hands, including Mark Isakowitz of Fierce, Isakowitz & Blalock; Jeff Peck of Peck, Madigan, Jones & Stewart; and Pat Griffin of management consulting firm Griffin/Williams, are also on board as paid advisors. Dewey Square Group and DCI Group are handling grass-roots outreach for the coalition and Burson-Marsteller's subsidiary Proof Integrated Communications has created the print ads running in major media outlets inside the Beltway that have used popular slogans like "Just Fix it" and "I'm Fixin' it" of companies like Nike and McDonald's.
One Democratic strategist said that firms are still pitching the coalition, hoping to get business for potential television ads, among other areas.
The group has done print, outdoor and online ads and anticipates doing television ads, according to Romano.
"I think everyone in the world has talked to Fix the Debt," the strategist said.
Fix the Debt is hardly alone. More traditional trade groups like the Business Roundtable have also gotten in the action. The BRT has launched a five-week, $500,000 campaign with media buys and lobbying. The trade association has contracted with NJI Media, CRAFT's Brian Donahue and Fratelli Group.
The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, meanwhile, is focusing its attention on leveraging the 7.5 million grassroots activists in its database and also has plans to push out more analysis in the coming weeks.
And companies across the board are asking hired guns to keep them appraised of the latest Capitol Hill meetings, thinking of leadership and potential pitfalls for their businesses.
"People's existing clients call asking for intel and assistance," said Tony Podesta, founder of the Podesta Group, noting that broader tax reform will create even more work for firms.
"This is a once in a generation opportunity to reform the tax code," Podesta said. "Companies I would imagine will put in extra resources. There will be plenty of opportunities."
Some groups are already lining up for their opening on tax reform once the fiscal cliff is resolved. The RATE Coalition -- comprised of companies like AT&T, Home Depot, Macy's and Lockheed Martin, among others -- is still meeting regularly and working on a parallel track for lowering corporate tax rates. The group has DCI Group, Blue Engine Message & Media and JDA Frontline on retainer providing public affairs strategy.
The threat of automatic cuts that could hit the Pentagon in January have sent defense firms into a frenzy, creating a boom for contract lawyers.
"We're getting questions about sequestration every day or every other day," said John Prairie of Wiley Rein.
And even if cuts happen -- even partial cuts -- lawyers expect an immediate bump as companies hunker down to protect their contracts.
Some firms have beefed up like Covington & Burling. The firm recruited Robert Nichols from Crowell & Moring to co-chair the firm's government contracts group.
The firm has quickly grown the practice from two lawyers to today's 19. It plans to further expand over the next few years, Nichols said.
"We see the turmoil and the shaking out of federal procurement over the coming decade as the exact right time to be jumping into this market," Nichols said. "It's safe to say this is really one of the most important priorities at Covington over the next couple of years."
This article first appeared on POLITICO Pro at 3:46 p.m. on December 5, 2012.
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