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Federal employees aren't the only ones waiting for appointees to be confirmed

When you're a top lobbying firm that boasts such big names as Anne Wexler and Bob Walker, you wouldn't expect to have to prove yourself all over again.

Wexler, a former aide to President Carter, has run her firm, the Wexler Group, since 1981. Walker, a former high-ranking House Republican from Pennsylvania, has proven a quick study in corporate representation since he retired from Congress in early 1997.

But for months, the firm has been facing a dilemma. On one hand, says Walker, the Wexler Group has "the longest list of potential clients since I've been here." On the other hand, most would-be clients have yet to sign on the dotted line--and they may not for a while.

Why? Because before settling on a lobbying firm, Walker explains, clients have been waiting to see which high- and mid-level appointees will be named by President Bush and then confirmed by the Senate. Before spending big bucks to hire a Washington representative, clients want to be sure they choose a lobby firm with the right connections to the particular policy maker they care about.

"Potential clients approach [a new administration] with an abundance of caution," says Walker, the Wexler Group's CEO. "They are anxious to see who the political appointees are in those key jobs."

Until recently, the work of filling 499 administration jobs was going slowly. As a result, many Washington lobbyists have been cooling their heels for months. As of July 25--the administration's six-month mark--179 officials had been confirmed, and nine Clinton Administration holdovers remain in office. That means 311 Cabinet and agency positions are awaiting a confirmed appointee; people have been nominated to fill 81 of these slots, while 52 other names have been announced as soon-to-be nominees.

Paul C. Light, the vice president for governmental studies at the Brookings Institution and senior adviser to the Presidential Appointee Initiative, says the nomination process has been getting "slower and slower" since the Kennedy administration. "The fact is that the process is taking too long at both ends of Pennsylvania Avenue," he says.

Light jokes about not-yet-confirmed appointees being "zombies"--neither alive nor dead. "A lot of nominees are hanging around their departments, but woe be to them if they go into their office-to-be--that's against the rules," he says.

If you're a lobbyist and have a substantive conversation with a not-yet-confirmed appointee, or you're just schmoozing with that person, "you could actually destroy the chance that [appointee] has of being confirmed," Light explains.

Many lobbyists say they are feeling, in one way or another, the effects of the slow pace of sub-Cabinet appointments.

Robert B. Doherty, the senior vice president for government affairs and public policy at the American College of Physicians-American Society of Internal Medicine, says that whether delays are good or bad for lobbyists comes down to the policy view of a particular nominee.

For instance, environmentalists who are worried about conservatives taking over key regulatory jobs love the delay.

The Sierra Club and other environmental groups opposed to Bush administration policies are "not at all unhappy" that lower-level positions are still open, says spokesman Allen Mattison. "It's those lower-level people who can do a lot of damage to the environment in a quiet way, by nibbling away at regulations and subverting safeguards."

Naturally, many conservatives hold the opposite opinion.

R.J. Smith, a senior environmental scholar at the Competitive Enterprise Institute, explains that conservative think tanks and farming, mining, and timber groups formed the natural resources working group to forward names to the Bush transition team. "Eventually we got tired, waiting week after week, month after month," he says. "A lot of us just dropped out of the loop. The administration is so risk-averse that a lot of us now don't think that anybody good will be put in these places."

Bonner Cohen, a senior fellow with the Lexington Institute, a free-market think tank, says "there's certainly an element of frustration" among conservatives, along with a sense of "resignation" that Washington works this way.

Trade association lobbyists are probably the most worried because associations deal with federal agencies on a long list of regulatory and policy matters. For some trade groups, work has been on hold for months.

Take the National Mining Association, for example. On July 18, nominees were finally designated for director of the Interior Department's Office of Surface Mining; director of Interior's Fish and Wildlife Service; and assistant Secretary of Interior for fish, wildlife, and parks. No names, however, have been put forward for other key slots: director of the Bureau of Land Management; assistant Secretary of Interior for land and minerals management; director of the U.S. Geological Survey; assistant Secretary of Energy for fossil energy; and several top posts at the Environmental Protection Agency.

Tom Altmeyer, senior vice president for government affairs at the mining group, said he recently commiserated about the personnel shortage when he saw Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton at a reception.

"What this means is--for lack of a better term--the people's business is not getting done," he says. "You have a lot of career people waiting to receive guidance from the appointees and the deputies they bring in. When companies have land exchanges or permitting issues, this impacts their ability to do business and make investments."

Carl Feldbaum, president of the Biotechnology Industry Organization, expresses similar exasperation about vacancies at the Food and Drug Administration--most notably the FDA commissioner's job. "It's having a practical effect on our member companies who are awaiting review of their drugs," Feldbaum says. Without an agency head, the drug-approval process tends to slow down, he adds.

The absence of a commissioner puts the FDA at a fiscal disadvantage, he says, when it seeks funds from Congress. The vacancy also leaves in doubt what will happen to FDA "user fees" that are currently paid by industry. Those fees, which are up for reauthorization next year, help assure speedy review of new drugs by FDA scientists.

Not all trade groups are hitting the panic button. Mike Russell, a spokesman for the American Trucking Associations, acknowledges that one of the group's major lobbying battles--a possible rewrite of rules on how long truckers can sit behind the wheel--is in limbo because the Bush administration has not yet nominated someone to head the Federal Motor Carrier Safety Administration. But because such a high-profile issue will likely be shaped by both career Transportation Department employees and White House officials, the ATA is relieved that lines of communication are still operating, he says.

"At ATA, a large number of us have come from various administrations, so we're used to the slow pace of the appointment process," says Russell, who worked in the Health and Human Services and Transportation Departments during the Clinton administration. "Over the years, we've learned to deal with it."

Doherty, of the American College of Physicians, says empty slots at HHS made it difficult to gauge Bush's re-evaluation of Clinton administration regulations. With no HHS decision makers, Doherty didn't know whom to lobby. In one case, Doherty says, it worked out fine when Bush revised a medical-privacy regulation that Doherty considered burdensome for physicians. But in another case, Doherty was irked when Bush pulled back a regulation that would have extended protections to Medicaid patients that are similar to those in the proposed patients' bill of rights.

Lobbyists at private firms agree that the arduous appointment process sometimes matters and sometimes does not.

"What it does affect," says W. Michael House, a veteran lobbyist with the firm Hogan & Hartson, "are the cases left over from the previous administration. You get the new administration in there, and it puts everything into a period of limbo."

House, for instance, heads the lobbying group FM Watch, which is backed by several financial companies that want to place new limits on Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, two federally chartered companies. With key officials not yet in place, FM Watch is in "a wait-and-see mode." To House, that delay is a headache.

Some lobbyists emphasize that it's an exaggeration to say that K Streeters are constantly working on highly controversial matters where political appointees--rather than career officials--actually make a difference. Paul Jackson Rice, a lobbyist with Arent Fox Kintner Plotkin & Kahn who used to serve in Transportation, says he tends to deal with career staffers at his former department.

"My experience is that there are probably only a handful of issues that are so sensitive that you need a political boss to resolve them," he explains. "Most things are routine, and they just flow."

That said, Rice does represent Bridgestone/Firestone Inc., the beleaguered tire company that is being investigated by the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Since January, Rice has been forced to deal with an agency with no top administrator. On June 26, Bush nominated physician and crash-safety expert Jeffrey William Runge, but the Senate has yet to confirm him. So the wait goes on.

How do clients--who often pay sizable lobbying retainers by the month--feel about this? "It depends on how sophisticated the clients are, and how long they've played this game," Walker says. "The permanent fixtures have a pretty detailed understanding of all of this. The not-so-permanent fixtures have to be educated on why you can't get a decision right away."

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