Lobbying Legislators

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.

Lobbying Basics
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.

Next, it is in your best interest to know as much as possible about lobbying and the lobbying process. Develop a working knowledge of exactly what lobbyists do and how they do it. This does not require exhaustive study; you’re hiring a lobbyist, not becoming one. But a well-informed consumer almost always gets better value than an uniformed customer who relies completely on a vendor. So become an educated consumer.

Finally, never be afraid to fire your lobbyist. Because the process is little understood and often mystifying, some lobbyists boast an unfounded mystique of superior knowledge or capability. While you certainly want your lobbyists to be sharp, well-connected and well-informed, it is important that they deliver. Determine whether your lobbyist is being effective for your agenda.

Is your advocate carrying out your organizational aims? Though a lobbyist may legitimately have several clients, is she or he providing sufficient advocacy for you? If not, it’s time to change partners. If your lobbyist is not delivering for you or you believe your lobbyist is being less than truthful, start asking direct, tough questions. The answers will guide your actions.

OK, now that you understand that working with a lobbyist is a partnership, you know the lobbying process and how it works, and you are not afraid to fire your lobbyist, it is time to focus on exactly what you hope to gain by engaging a lobbyist in the first place.

Just Say Know
Shakespeare admonished, “To thine own self be true.” There is no better guideline when preparing the agenda and the funding targets you want your lobbyist to pursue. Know what you really need, as opposed to what you want. We all have an ideal funding scenario we want to realize. But there is a danger to simply asking for the ideal. It is far wiser to understand and ask for exactly what your agency needs and can actually handle.

In the first place, realistic requests are easier to fill. All too often, organizations ask for too much and wind up with nothing. Be careful. While it is tempting to ask for the moon, that is rarely beneficial. There have also been instances where organizations have been awarded large sums and then have been unable to deliver. And rarely does that happen twice. In other cases, people shoot way too low and ask for too little money. When that happens, you are stuck with less funding than you need and you have unnecessarily left considerable sums on the table. So, what is an organization to do?

Since this is more art than science, there is no simple answer. Organizations must examine their particular needs and carefully determine what they think is best. This is where your lobbyist can be of considerable help. He or she should have in-depth knowledge about the legislature and who might possess a sympathetic ear toward your type of project. Work closely with your lobbyist once you’ve determined your in-house desires. Be prepared to work within a flexible but realistic budget framework. Today’s frugality might prove to be tomorrow’s largesse. Also consider that your funding request may span different political administrations. This is especially true for large infrastructure projects. Create a sustainable project that can survive multiple administrations and reauthorizations. Your lobbyist can advocate more strongly for you if he or she is pursuing a realistic agenda.

Appearances Matter
Is your project a good investment? Has your organization proved that it can deliver? These are critical questions that will be asked whenever funding is sought. Obviously, it is of the utmost importance that you can answer in the affirmative. All too often, organizations believe that they can somehow slip by these questions if they can just “line up the legislators.” While lobbying legislators to your point of view is important, your project must have “legs” of its own — financial, technical, demographic and practical foundations — to stand on. Treating the lobbying effort as a strictly political endeavor can lead to failure on both a local and national level.

Rather than focusing exclusively on lining up legislators, look internally. Make your organization and the specific projects for which you are seeking funding as attractive as possible. Position these projects for the greater good locally, and if possible regionally and nationally. Demonstrate that your project is worthy of investment. Are there known problems with the project? Mitigate them. As much as possible, get your own house in order before asking a lobbyist to represent you to the legislature. Never send your lobbyist to the legislature in hopes that things will “work themselves out.” That is a recipe for short- and long-term disaster.

The Right Stuff
In the eyes of legislators, little will undermine an organization’s or a project’s credibility as quickly as factual discrepancies or disagreements. For example, if one person on your staff presents figures using fiscal year 2006 dollars and another staffer presents figures using fiscal year 2008 dollars, you have a problem. It causes one of two reactions, both of which are bad. Either it looks like your organization does not know how much a project really costs (or how to calculate costs), or it looks like you are trying to pull a fast one by fudging the numbers. The details matter. If the facts do not line up, it eats away at confidence in your organization and your project. And when looking for funding on Capitol Hill, confidence is everything.

Jeopardizing your credibility makes the lobbyist’s job much, much harder.

So, get your facts in order. Do not use fuzzy math to make things look better. Do not use jargon to hide a blemish. Be truthful and be able to support the figures you and your lobbyist put forth. Making sure that you and your advocate are on the same page, understand and communicate clearly your position in a way that is consistent with your current policies and procedures. Having said that, though, be careful of spending so much time crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s that you neglect the substance of what you are presenting. Let me give you an example.

Five years ago, if an organization presented a transit project featuring many revolutionary climate-change provisions, the legislators’ eyes would have collectively glazed over. Why? Though there was a great deal of controversy on the subject, there was still no clear, compelling public interest in climate change. People just didn’t get it yet. Of course, five years later that has completely changed.

Now, you must embed sustainable features in your project or it will not seem current — and you will be competing with other projects that incorporate it comprehensively. And those projects will seem more worthy of funding because they are “designed to help move commuters while saving the environment.” So the lesson here is this: Get your facts right; speak in one voice, with everyone on your team on the same page; and keep current about the legislature’s perceptions as it pertains to your project.

Draw the Bigger Picture
Unfortunately, many organizations seeking project funds remain too narrowly focused about their project’s benefits. Often, they present only the immediate transportation improvements offered by completing the project. That is a mistake. In practically every case, there are many collateral benefits. Showcase them. Explain how your project will help the environment, the community, another transportation project and another transportation mode. Will your project help transportation regionally as well as locally? Will it help nationally? Internationally? The more legitimate reasons you can present as to why your project is both important and beneficial, the easier it is for your lobbyist to line up support. In addition, your lobbyist can also help you line up support for the bigger picture through several means including working with various local stakeholders to generate wider support for your project.

When Sending a Card Won’t Do
Working with a lobbyist is not just about your relationship with him or her. It is also about your relationship with congressional staffers in Washington. So, make yourself and members of your organization available to congressional staffers long before you need anything from them. Establish a relationship with as many staffers as possible, and help them whenever you can. Position your organization and your staff as reliable sources of information and support. Become the go-to people when staffers need help. Why spend a good amount of time getting to know “lowly” congressional staffers?

Because even though they are not senior legislators, they are the information and access gatekeepers. And they have an inside track on everything that is going on in Congress. Want to make sure that your funding request finds its way to the top of a pile on someone’s desk? Who do you think puts it there? Want to know breaking news before it breaks? Who types the memo that is about to be released? So build and sustain substantive relationships with congressional staffers before you need something from them.

No Plan is an Island
As mentioned earlier, you must get your own house in order before proceeding to the legislature through your lobbyist. Having said that, though, it is equally important to know where you are going and what the lay of the land is there. Are you pitching a particular congressperson? Has he or she been recently burned by a similar project? Has he or she unofficially committed to a competing project? And in this scandal-ridden age, you even need to worry about whether that congressperson is about to face some very embarrassing personal controversy that may be forever attached to your project.

You must understand congressional initiatives and realities on the Hill. To do that, you should always stay current with what is going on in the legislature and with legislators you believe are important to your cause. This is another instance where good, solid, working relationships with congressional staffers can prove invaluable. And once you know the lay of the congressional land, you can accurately and precisely frame and position your program to fill needs or support shared interests.

Your Calling Card
For-hire lobbyists will generally represent several organizations, and be working to advance several different agendas. You may not be their first priority. That is a problem. To mitigate that, you must make sure to maintain a strong association, a strong identity through your lobbyist. You want congresspeople and staffers to see your lobbyist and think of your organization first. You do not want them to look at your advocate and think, “Well, I wonder who he’s representing today ...” But how do you avoid that?

First, it is not unreasonable for a client to demand exclusivity from their lobbyist for representation within the transportation industry. This helps eliminate any perceived conflicts of interest with other clients the lobbyist may serve. You should never feel that your agency’s value to your lobbyist is secondary to any of the lobbyist’s other clients.

Next, as mentioned previously, establish an honest, trusting relationship with your lobbyist. To advance that relationship, have one high-level person from your organization assigned to your lobbyist. Dedicate that high-level person’s time to the lobbyist and his or her needs. Provide that person with everything needed to help the lobbyist make your case. Ensure the senior-level executive you choose can communicate your organization’s vision dynamically and compellingly. Make sure he or she can “sell” your project to the lobbyist. This tells the lobbyist that your organization is investing a lot of time and energy into the process and that you value his or her services. And that is exactly what you want your lobbyist to feel — the more that your lobbyist invests emotionally in your agenda, the better and more sincerely he or she will advocate on your behalf.

Take the Lead Time
Too many things devolve to the “last minute” in this world; working with your lobbyist should not be one of them. By the nature of our system, there are periods of dormancy and times when the process is insanely frenzied. During appropriations times, for example, “crisis mode” is routine. As common sense dictates, that would be the worst time to start working with your advocate. So be proactive. Work with your advocate way before important deadlines loom on the horizon so that he or she can be well prepared when crunch time arrives. Be careful, though. What you think may be enough lead time to accomplish something may not be enough time for your advocate. Work with him or her. Establish realistic time frames and get a jump on the process.

Preach the Gospel of Your Project
True believers are passionate. You want to make your advocate a true believer. Instill in your lobbyist a sense of respect and passion for your program. Communicate the cultural values of your organization and its mission so that your lobbyist wants to effectively represent your organization’s entire program. Give him or her compelling specifics so your advocate can answer the tough questions with fervor and without hesitation or referral. Provide your lobbyist with unhindered access to key people — both management and technical staff. By the same token, choose an advocate who displays a willingness to learn more than the basics about your program and organization. Why is this so important? Consider what advocates do when they are not visiting your organization.

An integral part of a lobbyist’s job is to know the specifics, in detail, about legislation. Lobbyists constantly monitor regulations and changes in legislation. If an advocate believes in your program, she or he will come to you with opportunities that you might never have known about or considered. For example, in the new SAFETEA-LU regulations, you may feel that you know about all the funds that are potentially available to your organization. But your advocate might have insider knowledge that can make even more funding available. Make your advocate a true believer so that your project becomes a personal campaign for him or her.

We began by stating that lobbying is difficult to define well. It is. But that doesn’t lessen its importance. In his compelling history of lobbying prepared for the U.S. Senate, Senator Robert Byrd said, “Congress has always had, and always will have, lobbyists and lobbying. We could not adequately consider our workload without them. . . . They spend many hours and considerable shoe leather trying to convince 535 members of Congress of the wisdom or folly of certain legislation. They face vigorous competition. They still bear the brunt of press criticism and take the blame for the sins of a small minority of their numbers. But they have a job to do, and most of them do it very well indeed. It is hard to imagine Congress without them.”

Equally important, though, is optimizing the relationship between your organization and your advocate. By following these basic, commonsense strategies, you can learn to work closely with your advocate to achieve your organization’s legislative goals.

Diana C. Mendes, AICP, is a senior vice president and national director of transit planning for DMJM Harris I AECOM; Nancy Butler is vice president for federal and governmental affairs for DMJM Harris I AECOM.

More Related Information:
Archived Article: Manager’s Forum — Local Politics
Archived Article: Granting Your Success