- The Washington Times - Monday, May 1, 2000

Lobbying is a top industry in a town that thrives on politics, and Nick Calio is at the center of an issue that will dominate politics in Washington over the next few weeks: trade with China. Mr. Calio, once President George Bush's point man on Capitol Hill, is now a top strategist behind corporate America's push to expand trade and investment with China.

In 1993, Mr. Calio formed with former Carter administration official Lawrence F. O'Brien what is now one of the most formidable lobbying firms in the nation's capital. One of Mr. Calio's clients is the Business Roundtable, an association of chief executive officers from the largest corporations in the United States. With his help, business groups are concentrating their efforts on the roughly 40 members of the House of Representatives who will determine by the end of the month whether the United States grants China permanent access to the U.S. market, which is necessary to bring the Asian giant into the World Trade Organization.

Mr. Calio is a veteran lobbyist on trade issues, having worked on passage of the North American Free Trade Agreement in 1994 and other battles since then. But Mr. Calio was in the lobbying business well before NAFTA. Though a Republican, he developed a close relationship with former Rep. Dan Rostenkowski, Illinois Democrat, in the 1980s. President Bush decided he could not do without Mr. Calio's skills, and brought him to the White House. O'Brien Calio was founded the day after President Bill Clinton took office in 1993.

Question: How has lobbying changed since you have been working in Washington?

Answer: Things have changed significantly in 20 years. When I first came here in 1978, things were much more congenial on the Hill, though the seeds were there for bitter partisan warfare. Then, people tended more to disagree during the day and then go out at night and have dinner. There was a lot more conversation across the aisle where people would speak to each other, discuss the problems, and oftentimes try to get things done. In the vote on the Gulf war in 1991, the younger guys kept to themselves, while the older guys hung out together and talked about what was going on, and what they had to do. Democrats and Republicans came together because they thought it was in the interest of the country. Things like that are much rarer these days.

Q: How does that change the job that you do?

A: You see a different type of member [of Congress] these days. There are fewer members who deal with the public as real people: the kind of people who will talk, go out and have dinner, and have an entirely social conversation without business. In that sense, lobbying is a little more difficult. But if you are smart, and you are good, you can be friends with people on both sides of the aisle. Part of the key to being a good lobbyist is providing information and gathering and assimilating information. There are so many more ways to do that now, it's virtual overload. If you think about the amount of materials that comes across a congressman's desk every day, it's remarkable. There are better, faster and more intimate ways, most recently e-mail, to reach members than before.

Q: How has technology affected the role you play?

A: I think the technology has enhanced it. Good lobbying is about how many buttons you can push to get your point across. If you can do that by personal contact, with substantive information and political information, all that helps you move a member along to a point of view you would like them to have. It's easier, through the technology, to make the interests of a district or state apparent to [members] through the technology.

Q: China is not a country most Americans admire. How does that fact complicate your work on trade issues?

A: You have a totally different culture there, which can be problematic in terms of people's perceptions. It was and is a communist country, and it is a far more backward economy, but it is one that looms large. People see benefits, but people get concerned as well. It is much more difficult to make the case. The Chinese, in my personal view, sometimes disregard the political atmosphere here. But we think there is a strong commercial case to be made.

Q: You face a tenacious opponent in organized labor, which is very well organized at the grass roots. What does a business lobbyist like yourself tell an undecided member who has a lot of union members in his district?

A: Business cannot compete with the unions [when it comes to grass-roots political activity]. Unions have people on the ground who can man phone banks. They have paid organizers financed by members' dues. Businessmen are busy running business, and, unlike labor, they are not a monolith. Labor has a whole tranche of people that are solely used for political purposes. If they had to run a business and produce a bottom line, it might be a different story. We try to be as helpful as we can, and the business community is not without means.

Q: The vote on trade with China is scheduled for the week of May 22. What will the next four weeks look like?

A: This issue has been lobbied really since last year. The administration started in December. Now we have to keep doing what we have been doing. This is purely retail "scut work," as I call it. There's nothing easy or glamorous about it. It is door-to-door shoe leather. We are trying to constantly stay in touch with [undecided] members. There is not going to be any one decisive event. Every vote counts.

Q: Can the president put this legislation over the top by resorting to the favors that only the White House can deliver?

A: The president's ability to persuade people is always a factor, but if it were the decisive factor, we would have had and won the fast-track vote. This is going to be like NAFTA. We are working on a vote-by-vote basis where every vote counts. There is often disbelief [among business lobbyists] when I give an honest assessment about how close the vote is going to be. Things can change until then. I don't believe that this vote will be won or not be won by building bridges.

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