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Lust for Life: The most effective lobbyist in Washington.

Sep 3, 2001 | In the News

From National Review magazine issue of September 3, 2001 [also posted on National Review Online at www.nationalreview.com/advance/cosmopolitan-issue09-03-01.shtml#title8 ]

Lust for Life:  The most effective lobbyist in Washington.
By Kate O’Beirne, National Review Washington editor

In the last week before Congress closed down for summer vacation, tensions were high.  GOP leaders were facing high-stakes House votes on a patients’ bill of rights and President Bush’s energy bill; they had to pick their fights very carefully, because there was little margin for miscalculation.  But they decided to bring up one particular contentious issue — cloning — and risk a humiliating defeat on it, based on a single lobbyist’s assurance that they would win the crucial vote.  A top GOP aide explains that only one outsider has earned that level of confidence.  After the nerve-racking winning tally, the aide declared:  “That settles it. Doug Johnson is the best lobbyist in town.”

The supposed access and influence bought by big money — the stuff of nightmares among would-be campaign-finance reformers — pale by comparison with Johnson’s clout.  Since 1981, when he was named legislative director for the National Right to Life Committee (NRLC), Douglas Johnson has been building relationships, voting profiles, media files, and a level of influence that money can’t buy.  A former House staffer, who was used to lobbyists jostling each other to pick up her restaurant tabs, worked closely with Johnson for four years and laughingly recalls, “I don’t think Doug ever bought me a cup of coffee.”

On an unfashionable block in downtown Washington, in an office one blunt visitor describes as a “dump,” Johnson directs the efforts of a couple of young assistants who spend the bulk of their time on the Hill, as well as the lobbying activities of his counterparts in the NRLC’s state affiliates.  The bookish father of four, including three adopted children, was labeled the “unlobbyist” by a capital veteran who “doubts that he even has an expense account.”  Lobbying is a lucrative business for Washington’s top practitioners, but no one on the committee’s staff makes six figures.  While his well-heeled counterparts are enjoying leisurely lunches in the city’s fanciest restaurants, Johnson is at his desk, sporting one of his signature short-sleeved shirts and the peculiar colored glasses he’s taken to wearing over his regular glasses owing to a frustrating eye disorder.  The “power lunch” is not a regular part of his schedule.  Nancy Ruiz, a former lobbying aide, explains: “Doug used to say that he looked forward to the day when food pellets were invented so he could eliminate the bother of eating.”

GOP leadership staff found Johnson at his desk, working multiple phone lines, when they called him at 1:30 P.M. on July 31.  They had just learned that as many as 18 of their liberal members, recognizing that the pro-cloning bill they favored was going to be defeated, were threatening to vote against the leadership’s rule governing the consideration of the alternative bills.  Rules typically pass on strictly partisan votes, and being defeated on a rule usually amounts to a humiliating loss for House leaders; in this case, it would also block a vote on the cloning ban the GOP favored.  “Can you get enough Democrats to pass the rule?” Johnson was asked.  “Only if you hang up and let me try,” was his (customarily curt) reply.  Within the hour, Johnson reported that he thought he had lined up enough support for the rule, and the leadership went ahead with the vote, based on his estimate.  Johnson’s close relationships with sympathetic Democratic members wound up producing more than twice as many Democratic supporters for the rule as Republican defectors (34 to 15).  “We gambled everything on Doug’s count,” says a GOP aide.  The House then passed a total ban on cloning, 265-162.

Johnson, 50, has been winning the respect of Washington’s political class for 20 years.  One lobbyist who used to be a Senate aide — and worked with Johnson at the time — marvels that on an issue as emotional as abortion, the pro-life lobbyist is able to avoid a common pitfall: “Doug won’t kid himself into thinking that he has the votes.  He carefully picks his battles, then goes off and gets the votes he needs.”  Ruiz says that she considered her attention to detail a particular strength, until she worked with Johnson in the early 1990s and saw a man devoted to a metaphysical standard of accuracy.  Another former lobbying aide, Susan Lataif, recalls Johnson as a “compulsive fact-checker” for whom the smallest mistake was a “cardinal sin.”

Johnson’s files overflow his cluttered office; a further, dazzling source of information is his own memory.  Ruiz recalls that when confronted with a troublesome congressman, Johnson was able to quote a commitment made in that congressman’s primary race two decades earlier.  Another former aide explains that she didn’t know what to make of President Clinton’s announced intention to nominate Dr. Henry Foster as surgeon general.  “I figured he was an obscure Tennessee physician, but Doug immediately headed to his files because he remembered seeing Foster’s name on the letterhead of an unfriendly organization.”

Reporters who cover abortion issues have become accustomed to being held to Johnson’s standard of accuracy.  At a GOP orientation session for prospective candidates a few years ago, a reporter for Congressional Quarterly was explaining what politicians should do if they object to a news story, and departed from his notes to cite the prototype of effectiveness.  The reporter explained that his fellow scribes approached the issue of abortion with trepidation because they knew that within hours of a story appearing, they would be sent a “three-page memo, with documentation, and the promise of a follow-up phone call” from the relentless Doug Johnson.

In the last Congress, the National Right to Life Committee tracked 20 key pro-life votes in the House — including a ban on partial-birth abortions — and the committee’s position prevailed on 17 of them.  Before moving to the Washington headquarters, Johnson was briefly legislative director for the Texas Right to Life Committee, and he credits the grassroots troops for the successes on Capitol Hill; but state legislative directors are quick to return the credit.  Pennsylvania’s Mary Beliveau explains that for almost 20 years she has relied on timely and accurate information from Johnson, in e-mails, faxes, and round-the-clock phone calls; the members of Congress she works with have also come to rely on this material.  Sue Armacost in Wisconsin agrees that Johnson’s thorough explanations, including background scientific material when necessary, are indispensable.  In recent years, the issue of campaign-finance reform has become one of the committee’s top priorities, and Armacost explains that “Doug has educated us about why it’s an issue for us and other citizens’ groups.”

The NRLC’s opposition to campaign-finance-reform plans that would impose stringent new restrictions on citizens’ groups has caused a bitter feud with one of their former allies — Sen. John McCain. With a prescience his associates have come to expect, Johnson anticipated both McCain’s political rise early in 2000 and the threat McCain’s campaign-finance ideas pose to the activities of grass roots political groups.  In 1997, when the Straight Talk Express was barely in the design phase, the NRLC ran ads opposing the McCain-Feingold legislation in Arizona — and Iowa and New Hampshire.  A furious McCain struck back, and by 2000 had taken to attributing the NRLC’s opposition to its desire “to continue this huge business they’ve got going in Washington, D.C.”  Johnson told friends that the accusation had them “rolling around on our ragged carpeting” with laughter.

In last year’s GOP primaries, there was an erosion of social conservatives’ support for the previously reliable pro-life senator, owing to the doubts raised by Johnson, who also publicized an apparent reversal in McCain’s longstanding opposition to Roe v. Wade.

Former Florida congressman Charles Canady says that getting to know Johnson and his wife, Carolyn, was one of the best parts of serving in Washington.  Canady chaired the subcommittee responsible for the bill that banned partial-birth abortion, and credits Johnson with developing this issue that so successfully educated the public about abortion.  Summing up why Johnson is so effective, Canady says: “He’s totally honest.”

A senior House Republican aide offers a proposal that might help the GOP prevail on other important causes, ones that lack an advocate with Johnson’s skills:  “Maybe we can clone him.”

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