WASHINGTON —In this town built on politics,lobbying is a big industry where retailers invest — often heavily — to have access and,,hopefully,influence.

It ’s an inexact profession garnering corporate busi- ness for being in the know,whether it ’s a trade bill that ’s hung up on a textile origin issue or a bankruptcy reform bill stalled over an anti-abortion controversy.

It ’s also a profession that gets a lot of flak. Downtown K Street,where many lobbying firms are lo- cated,is disparagingly called “Gucci Gulch ”for its smartly but conservatively dressed crowd,with a pen- chant for things monogrammed.One measure of Washington power is the “Washington Rep ”directory of lobbyists and their corporate clients,a political ver- sion of the city ’s “Green Book ” social registry..

Lobbyists are called “influence peddlers ”by critics. Retailers say lobbyists are a necessity and a key part of their business strategy.

“We have to have relationships with legislators that allows us to help them understand the whole picture,” said a Sears,Roebuck &Co.spokeswoman. “Legislation is complex and it ’s often not obvious how proposed legislation will impact Sears.”

When working with outside lobbying firms,retailers typically follow the time-held practice of striking a bal- ance between lobbyists with strong Republican or Democratic connections.It ’s a prudent strategy be- cause power eventually shifts.

At the minimum,retailers,like Federated Department Stores,rely almost exclusively on trade as- sociations,such as the National Retail Federation, which represents department store and specialty re- tailers,and the International Mass Retail Association, which represents mass merchants.

For 2001,the NRF spent $1.3 million on its lobbying services,about $220,000 of which went to outside lobbying firms.IMRA spent $250,000 on lobbying for the period,ac- cording to disclosures required by the House and Senate.

“For federal lobbying,95 percent of the time NRF represents our interests and point of view very well,” said Carol Sanger,Federated ’s vice president for cor- porate affairs.However,Sanger said Federated has just retained the lobbying and law firm of Patton, Boggs,which will be used on a case-by-case-basis.The firm ’s current portfolio of retail clients includes The Limited and Wal-Mart Stores.Another top lobbying firm is The OB-C Group,which Sears uses.A former principal,Nicholas Calio,is ow Bush ’s chief Capitol Hill lobbying scout.

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