Chris Dodd: Washington’s Ultimate Insider

Christopher Dodd, who turned 68 last month, built a reputation during his nearly 35 years in Congress for his skill in cultivating friendships, cutting deals and raising funds to enable him to gain power and push major initiatives into law, the most recent of which bears his name: the 2010 Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act.

Having coped with a major loss in his first year on the lobbying side of Washington after anti-piracy legislation was blocked, he appears to be relying on those skills to improve his understanding of Hollywood, broaden the reach of the Motion Picture Association of America, and garner some successes. “My learning curve about understanding this industry is still climbing,” he told Variety in May.

As chairman and chief executive officer of the MPAA, Dodd has been spending much of his time traveling around the country — and the globe — trying to correct his one criticism of Hollywood when he took the position in March 2011; he told the Hollywood Reporter in his first interview that the industry needed to do better at marketing itself. He emphasized recently the need to change the common perception of Hollywood as a “red carpet” industry and better explain its role in promoting the United States as a source of values. He touts that the industry employs more than 2.2 million people in the U.S., 98 percent of whom are in blue-collar jobs.

Dodd also has been working to extend the MPAA’s influence over a series of issues impacting Hollywood — film ratings, access to foreign markets, and the explosion of technology — and to broaden the organization’s reach. Last month, he made his second visit to the Cannes Film Festival, this time throwing a reception that The Washington Post said “marked the MPAA’s first such soiree in twenty years.”  That was after spending an afternoon meeting with independent producers and distributors that aren’t members of the association. While MPAA is the lobbying arm for the Big Six movie studios, Dodd said: “I think my portfolio has to be a lot larger than that if I’m actually going to help the studios.”

Dodd’s Political History

Dodd is one of about 375 former lawmakers who have walked out of Congress and onto K Street, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.  Among former members of the 111th Congress who exited after the 2010 midterm elections, 16 members (or 20.5 percent of those who left) found jobs like Dodd’s that are termed “lobbying client” because they are not formally registered as lobbyists. Another 32.1 percent, or 25 members, have been employed by lobbying firms.

Dodd, whose father  represented Connecticut as a Democratic U.S. representative for four years, and as a U.S. senator for 12 years, is among the most well-connected of those who have gone through the “revolving door.” The younger Dodd was first elected to the House in the 1974 post-Watergate election at age 30, capturing a Republican seat. Six years later he became the youngest person elected to represent Connecticut in the Senate, taking a seat vacated by retiring Democrat Abraham Ribicoff.

Dodd served for many years on the Committee on Banking, Housing and Urban Affairs, ultimately as chairman; he also served on the Committee on Foreign Relations, as well as on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP). At the start of 110th was tasked by his longtime friend, HELP Chairman Edward M. Kennedy, D-Mass. — who was battling brain cancer — to serve as his chief deputy for the push to overhaul health care system. Dodd also had served previously on the committees on Budget and Rules, as well as the Democratic Steering Committee and the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee. He served from 1995 to 1997 as chairman of the Democratic National Committee.

During his tenure in Congress, he served on dozens of panels and was the original sponsor of nearly 1,000 bills — 845 in the Senate and 137 in the House, according to the First Street database and Thomas.gov. His successes included passage of the 1993 Family and Medical Leave Act, and he helped write a law that set the first federal standards for the conduct of elections — following the contested 2000 presidential election.

He typically received strong vote ratings from the American Civil Liberties Union, League of Conservation Voters, AFL-CIO, and Americans for Democratic Action and the National Education Association. He saw nearly 300 staff members roll through his office from 1993 to 2010 — not to mention the slew of committee staff members he worked with over the years.

But by 2010 he was saddled with diminished popularity back home, stemming in large part over questions whether he received a VIP deal on two mortgages in 2003 from Countrywide Financial Corp. And he failed in his bid for the 2008 Democratic presidential nomination. He ultimately chose to retire, and told the Connecticut Mirror he would not lobby when he left. Regardless, he is restricted by law from lobbying for two years after leaving the Senate. He told Variety in May 2012, “I can’t say anything to them about [anti-piracy legislation] for another seven months.”

The Lobbying Challenge

Dodd once attracted much attention on the Senate floor with his booming voice and in negotiating rooms with his sense of humor. His ease at making friends served him well in a chamber that had been known for its collegiality behind the scenes. “After three decades in Congress, I have some idea how to attract the attention of a congressman or senator,” Dodd had told the Hollywood Reporter in one of his first interviews.

But Dodd quickly discovered first-hand that those old friendships don’t necessarily make for easy success. The movie industry was strongly backing two bills aimed an blocking online piracy of copyrighted products — the Senate Protect IP Act and the House Stop Online Piracy Act in the House. Both had bipartisan backing as Dodd took over the MPAA, and the organization was joined by the Recording Industry Association of America and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. A final version appeared likely until a lobbying assault in early 2012 by Internet companies like Google and Twitter argued the bills would block free speech and inhibit innovation, and they helped rally public opposition and convince congressional leaders to pull the legislation.

The failure of that effort was hard for Dodd swallow. During a Fox News interview, he warned lawmakers who opposed the bills: “Don’t ask me to write a check for you when you think your job is at risk and then don’t pay any attention to me when my job is at stake.” By May, he had calmed down and made clear he was contemplating a different tactic rather than describing piracy as thievery. In a May 2012 interview with Variety, he said: “We’re going to have to be more subtle and consumer-oriented.”

And he has been trying to balance that failure with some other successes. He pushes for access for American films internationally, traveling to Beijing, Hong Kong and Mumbai to encourage greater American film access. In February, he celebrated a landmark pact with China to increase the number of foreign films allowed annually from 20 to 34 and ease rules on foreign companies working on co-productions.

And Dodd has joined other major organizations and corporations to push President Barack Obama to support strong intellectual property protections in a pending Trans-Pacific Partnership deal. And MPAA kept close tabs on debate on free trade deals with Columbia, Panama and South Korea.

Just before his recent visit to Cannes, Dodd helped broker an agreement between distributor Harvey Weinstein and the MPAA’s ratings board on the documentary “Bully.” The film initially received an “R” rating, but after Dodd intervened and edited out a few bad words, it was granted a PG-13 rating.

Expanding MPAA’s Reach and Influence

MPAA had previously cut back on its lobbying expenses, which had peaked at $2.7 million in 2008. It had dropped to less than $1.7 million in 2010, climbing back to $2.1 million last year. With $570,000 reported in the first quarter of 2012 — and a series of new hires — it appears Dodd is bringing those expenses back up.

In early 2012, Dodd announced four new hires at MPAA:

  • Alex Swartsel, a former staffer in Dodd’s Senate office, as director of global policy. Swartsel also worked on the presidential campaigns of John Kerry and Joe Lieberman.
  • Brian Cohen, who formerly worked at the U.S. Department of Justice, as director of external state governmental affairs.
  • Lauren Pastarnack, a former Senate Judiciary Committee staffer, as director of government affairs.
  • Kate Bedingfield, former White House communications adviser, as director of strategic communications.

In April, the MPAA announced a reorganization of its legal team. The following month, the association added another position: Marc Miller, former counsel for Nintendo, was hired as senior vice president of content protection, Internet.

In 2011, MPAA also hired nine outside lobbying firms, increasing that number to 10 firms in 2012 even after terminating a contract with Miller & Chevalier. Added to its force was McDermott Will & Emery LLP at a cost of $130,000 to address “market access disputes in Southeast Asia, and market access initiatives on digital carrier media and other digital products involving APEC and the WTO,” according to the lobby disclosure form. The lobbyist tasked with that job is firm partner Jay L. Eizenstat, who previously worked for Miller & Chevalier and before that was a trade negotiator in the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative, directing free trade negotiations between U.S. and South Korea, according to the Legal Times.

In a recent speech and CinemaCon, a theatrical exhibition trade show in Las Vegas, Dodd said it had been one of the most challenging years in MPAA’s 90-year history. But he insisted challenges posed by new online and digital technologies could be overcome, just as the industry once overcame what it thought were “disruptive innovations” — radio, TV, and the VCR.

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