After a lengthy exchange with a visiting business delegation, President Franklin Roosevelt is said to have responded to its entreaties with, “OK, you’ve convinced me. Now go out there and bring pressure on me.” While the story may be apocryphal, it illuminates the fundamental confusion that surrounds lobbying: What is it? How does it work? And why do we need it? In truth, our legislative process could not function without it.
Lobbying is difficult to define well. In her book “The Spider Web: Congress and Lobbying in the Age of Grant,” Margaret Susan Thompson defined lobbying as “the process by which the interests of discrete clienteles are represented within the policy-making system.” She went on to define lobbyists as “representatives who act concurrently with, and supplement the capabilities of, those who are selected at the polls. Lobbyists fill roles that in many ways are comparable to those of legislators: helping to transmit and obtain satisfaction for demands upon the government, thereby advancing the substantive interests of those whom they have taken it upon themselves to serve.”
In the Federal Regulation of Lobbying Act (later renamed Title III of the Legislative Reorganization Act of 1946), the U.S. Congress defined a lobbyist as any person “who by himself, or through any agent or employee or other persons in any manner whatsoever, directly or indirectly, solicits, collects or receives money or any other thing of value to be used principally . . . to influence, directly or indirectly, the passage or defeat of any legislation by the Congress of the United States.”
In “The Question of Lobbying,” the Honorable John Reid focused more on the lobbyist’s effect: “Professional lobbyists know their territory. They make very efficient use of their client’s time. They can find out where your problem lies, who to talk to and what questions to ask. They can tell you what information you need to have, and what questions you will have to answer. You will find out who you have to convince and why. Essentially, they guide you through the jungle of government and public opinion.”
A lobbyist in the employ of famed arms maker Samuel Colt characterized the lobbying process in a decidedly more vivid manner: “To reach the heart or get the vote, the surest way is down the throat.” A slightly more subtle definition can be extracted from Sun Tzu’s “The Art of War”: “Those who do not know the plans of competitors cannot prepare alliances. Those who do not know the lay of the land cannot maneuver their forces. Those who do not use local guides cannot take advantage of the ground.”
In essence, that is exactly what lobbying is all about — using local guides to better traverse unfamiliar legislative ground. Unfortunately, it is often perceived as something much more nefarious. It should not be. It is an honorable profession that exists only to expedite and optimize the legislative process while supporting particular features of a legislative or economic agenda. But the persistent confusion surrounding the profession is matched only by misperceptions about how best to work with lobbyists. And that is what we are here to offer — basic, commonsense strategies on how agencies can best work with lobbyists to help further their organizational mission.
Working with a lobbyist is a partnership. And like every successful partnership, it must begin with an honest, trusting relationship. Does that mean you tell your lobbyist everything about your company or industry? No. Any decent lobbyist will come to you having done his or her homework. But it does mean that you give your advocates sufficient, accurate, truthful information when asking them to represent your interests. Without that, how can they effectively be your advocate? So first and foremost, establish a level of trust and communication.