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Nation

Lobbyist courts smaller clients

| Saturday, May 1, 2010

WASHINGTON -- In the Washington world of million-dollar lobbying contracts and $500 lunch meetings, Paul Kanitra aims lower -- much lower.

The young lobbyist's unusual new venture, Keys to the Capitol, targets small towns, humble associations and others of modest means who can't even consider signing the $10,000-a-month retainers required by many top Washington firms. Instead, Kanitra's company offers contracts starting at $995, month-to-month agreements and prices and other details spelled out on the company's Web site.

The effort, which formally launches Friday after months of preparation, amounts to a bold experiment to remake the idea of Washington lobbying, where fee schedules are opaque and opulence is often viewed as part of the price of doing business.

"I guess you can call it McLobbying," said Kanitra, 30, adding that his inspiration comes from cost-killers like McDonald's, Wal-Mart and Amazon.com. "Every other industry embraced this kind of model a decade ago or more. The lobbying industry is stagnant and stuck in its ways."

To K Street veterans and good-government advocates, Kanitra's gambit is either a brilliant or foolhardy attempt to create a new populist niche within Washington's $3.5 billion lobbying market. Whether successful or not, the idea underscores rapid changes rocking the profession amid an economic downturn, an expanding government role in health care and other industries and continued attempts to limit the impact of lobbyists on the political process.

Veteran lobbyists say they already face strong pressures to curb rates and better explain costs to clients, who have tighter budgets and easier access to government data through the Internet. Patton Boggs and other lobbying behemoths increasingly offer legislative analyses and other general products for free, hoping to lure paying customers with more specialized services. Many smaller boutique lobbying firms, meanwhile, often focus only on one subject area, such as health care or energy.

"It is intimidating to try and find a lobbyist, especially if you're outside the Beltway," said Craig Holman, government affairs lobbyist for Public Citizen, the nonpartisan advocacy group. "You don't know exactly what the price is, you have to start negotiating over what you want done and you have no idea how to measure their performance. The whole system is tilted against small businesses and others who don't have a lot of money to spend."

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