Brad Pitt, Angelina Jolie, Paul Simon, George Clooney, Cher, Jessica Alba, Tony Bennett, Julianne Moore, Jennifer Garner, Ashley Judd, LeAnn Rimes, Don Cheadle, Fran Drescher, Lyle Lovett.
Which of these celebrities has not come here to lobby for a cause?
The answer is none—they’ve all been here. And as a glance at a copy of People magazine will confirm, there’s been an uptick in the star wattage on Capitol Hill.
“I’m amazed at the number of times I’ll pick up the newspaper and see a celebrity in town lobbying for something,” says Dan Glickman, the former Kansas congressman turned head of the Motion Picture Association of America, which lobbies for the US film industry.
“A big part of it is the excitement over the Obama administration,” says Mitch Bainwol, once a Senate staffer and now head of the Recording Industry Association of America, the music industry’s trade group.
The entertainment industry roundly backed Barack Obama’s 2008 candidacy, and there has been a swallow-like return of show-biz types to DC after an eight-year hiatus. While celebrity lobbying isn’t new, a new breed of star is doing it. Paris Hilton’s hit-and-run appearance here to support women in the arts notwithstanding, blond airheads jetting in for the cause du jour are seen and heard less.
“Celebrity does open doors on Capitol Hill,” says Robin Bronk of the Creative Coalition, an advocacy group. “But we get meetings with legislators because they know we’re not going to embarrass them.”
Add in some coaching from political insiders and the result is a number of celebs getting downright wonky as they learn to play the Washington game.
When Brad Pitt was on Capitol Hill in March, the Hollywood heartthrob caused the kind of feverish reaction you’d expect.
“It did get a little crazy around here,” says Regan Lachapelle, an aide to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid. “Our staff, other staff, lots of reporters—generally of the female persuasion—were all lined up to catch a glimpse of him.”
Pitt was in Congress to generate support for his Make It Right campaign, which is building affordable and sustainable housing for victims of Hurricane Katrina. Lachapelle says that staffers who met with the star were impressed with his knowledge.
Predictably, almost every move Pitt made was chronicled by paparazzi. But a fair amount of Hollywood lobbying doesn’t attract mass-media attention.
Anne-Marie Johnson blends in easily among the blue suits gathering at the end of a recent day in the bar of Charlie Palmer Steak, a Capitol Hill eatery known for its power clientele. A veteran of prime-time television—Diff’rent Strokes, Hill Street Blues, In the Heat of the Night, and JAG—Johnson is here in her role as an officer of the Screen Actors Guild.
She landed via the redeye from Los Angeles at about 6 that morning; the meetings began shortly after she checked into her hotel an hour later. Throughout the day, in a stylish but muted pantsuit, she shuttled among congressional offices presenting SAG’s case on the right to unionize and the need to update a provision of the federal tax code affecting artists.
She discussed the stalled Employee Free Choice Act—meant to restore workers’ freedom to choose whether to unionize—with staffers of senators Arlen Specter, Susan Collins, Blanche Lincoln, Lisa Murkowski, Ben Nelson, Dianne Feinstein, Mary Landrieu, and Olympia Snowe.
Regarding the tax-code provision, she sat down with staffers of the Senate Finance Committee as well as of Senator Charles Schumer, Representative Charles Rangel, and the White House Office of Public Engagement.
Pols from New York and California—where many stars live and work—are obvious targets for lobbying, but why should others care?
“If you’re Arlen Specter, you should care because Pennsylvania has some of the strongest state filming incentives, and you would want a strong acting pool to have the choice to join a union to feel protected,” Johnson says without missing a beat.
“When you bring in someone with name recognition to a cause, that’s more than half the battle because lots of causes have to fight just to get on the radar screen of politicians,” says Dennis Wharton of the National Association of Broadcasters. “The right person who’s committed and substantive on an issue can be very effective to get Congress to increase funding and generate publicity for a cause. If it wasn’t effective, you wouldn’t see this parade of celebrities through the Rayburn building.
“But you’ve got to be careful who you present as your poster child,” Wharton cautions. “If it’s way too obvious that the celebrity was brought in just for celebrity stature, it can be a recipe for disaster. You risk the chance of being mocked.”
To that point, Dan Glickman recalls his time on the House Agriculture Committee in the early 1980s, when a farm crisis hit. “We had Jessica Lange and Jane Fonda come to a committee hearing, and Pat Roberts”—like Glickman, then a Kansas congressman—“comes into the meeting to say he just had to come because of the witnesses’ unique and long-term expertise on agriculture.”
The stars were “somewhat bemused” by the sarcasm, Glickman says, “and we were exploiting them a little, true. But they did know lots of anecdotes, and Lange did come from a rural background.”
At least Roberts came to the hearing. The 2002 appearance of the Backstreet Boys’ Kevin Richardson before a Senate subcommittee on the environmental hazards of mountaintop mining is considered by many in the influence business to be among the most dubious uses of celebrity.
Richardson was born and raised in coal-belt Kentucky, and after he got rich and famous he started an environmental foundation. But his direct knowledge of mountaintop coal mining was limited to two plane flights over coal fields. He did not like what he’d seen, he told the committee.