Sunday, June 20, 2010

Professional Lobbyists and Lobbying

Before I began my journey of political education, I had an image of what a professional lobbyist must look. This image likely came from various sources including media stories, Hollywood, legend and random stories I have heard in passing along the way. The characterization was not flattering and primarily consisted of men in suits with red faces doing dirty deals for questionable causes.

I have not spent much time in the political world but even a small amount of time is enough to see the corruption and disturbing practices of some individuals within the system. I am not naïve and neither is the American people; we know things in our government are not always just or pretty.

That said, I found my time with the professional lobbyists who were kind enough to let me shadow them to be both enlightening and inspiring. Dare I say I may not have had the whole picture when I had those ideas in my head? Dare I say the role lobbyists play in the ideals or the downfalls of our governmental processes are similar to the roles professionals play in medicine: there are some bad eggs but one bad apple should not spoil the bunch. Lobbyists with vision and integrity can be a vital and helpful part of the governmental machine. Likewise, lobbyists who use their talents and connections on behalf of less desirable issues, clients or agendas can be dangerous.

The role of the professional lobbyist is to be a paid intermediary. They arrange meetings on behalf of clients and speak with those in public office in an effort to move forward their client’s goals. What I did not understand before observing this world first hand was the wide variation in the type of lobbyists and how they work.

Industry Lobbyists:

Industry lobbyists are professionals who only lobby for one group and organization. These lobbyists have one perspective, one point of view, on any given issue. An example of this is Jack, the lobbyist I shadowed who worked for the National Association of Social Workers. Jack himself is a social worker and therefore, as a lobbyist, was representing his own profession. This enabled Jack to bring a level of sincerity and integrity to his work because he understood the issues facing social workers first hand. In addition, the NASW has a clear message: to support bills that enable individuals to decide what is best for themselves. This clear message enabled Jack to lobby consistently for the same rights, policies and budget decisions without ever having to have a conflicting stance.

When I observed Jack, it was clear to me why he was a successful and effective advocate for both social workers and the people they serve. Jack is large in stature and larger in personality. He is both knowledgeable and quick minded. Partly because of his training and partly because of who he is, he has a natural and sincere interest in others and this reads clearly. Jack’s work has a firm foundation in the relationships he has formed. Representatives can trust him to be honest and consistent in his concerns and arguments. His combination of being no-nonsense, humorous and consistent makes him ideal for his role as industry lobbyist.

As Jack and I walked around the grounds of the various Legislature Buildings, he explained to me that the work he does happens in more places than the various meeting rooms. In fact, more often than not, by the time a bill gets to Committee, he knows what the vote will be because all of the real work takes place before the actual meeting. If Jack knows that his bill is going to be voted in the favor of his organization, he may not attend that committee meeting and, instead, track down more pressing business. It should also be noted that Jack had an unusual level of energy, as do many people in this line of work. At any given time, Jack might be watching and weighing in on as many as 30 bills.

Jack’s lobbying efforts happen whenever the opportunity presents itself. This means elevators, hallways, stairwells, and yes, even bathrooms. Whenever Jack can get a moment to talk to a resistant representative or a senate ally that needs to be informed of some problems on the horizon, he will take it. Life is that hectic in the political worlds, people are that busy, and the issues are that important.

So what kinds of things might you hear Jack saying in an elevator? He says one of his favorite opening lines is “OK, Representative, it’s time for you to get mad about this.”

Bottom line: It’s all about the relationships and seizing the opportunity

How do we build those relationships, you ask?

Legislative Liaisons: state employees who track bills similar to lobbyists but don’t have as much power as professional lobbyists

Contract Lobbyists:

When people think of lobbyists, they are often envisioning contract lobbyists. These are the people and the firms that carry a load of clients with varying issues and perspectives. Often contract lobbyists are lawyers, but this is not always the case. I had the opportunity to sit down with the vice president of one of the biggest and most successful lobbying firms in Washington DC.

Side note: How did I get this chance, you ask? I’m glad you asked. This is an example of the power of “what’s the worst that can happen, they say no?” In my research, I found and joined a website called lobbyist.info. I took a stab in the dark and wrote to this faceless website, told them my project, and asked if they had any suggestions for a lobbyist I could shadow during an upcoming trip to DC. Would you believe they wrote back in less than 24 hours to say one of their board members had volunteered to meet with me, his name was Mike, and he would be contacting me. Who knew? Just goes to show, they can say no but they may say yes. Might as well ask, right?

Before I took my trip to DC, Mike and I had exchanged several emails and he seemed very casual and down-to-earth. Imagine my surprise when I arrived at his office and realized I had just walked into a real-life Hollywood set. The sleek office took up half of the eleventh floor with views overlooking Capitol Hill and the National Monument. When I told the receptionist who I was there to see she kindly motioned behind me and said “Are you Tiffany Christensen?” On a flat screen television behind me read “We welcome Tiffany Christensen.” This was the big leagues and I was wearing flip flops. Miscalculation of wardrobe, for sure!

When Mike came to greet me he was kind and, even in a full suit and tie, approachable. He began to show me around his office that had few corners and mostly curved walls leading us to various destinations. It would have taken me all day to find my way back to the receptionist. Immediately, Mike began to point to impressive and recognizable campaign displays hanging up. I don’t mean campaigns for candidates; I mean the campaigns you see in magazines and television advocating certain causes like preventing teens from becoming smokers and raising awareness about hepatitis C. These were not obscure. I recognized almost all of the campaigns.

I was confused. I thought I was visiting a lobbying firm but this sure looked like a marketing firm. Had I contacted the wrong people? Mike continued to explain the campaigns on the wall and the clients they designed them for. The Post Office, The Ronald McDonald House, and the YMCA were just a few. These were big clients with big agendas. This was a big firm with big ideas. I was looking at lobbying on a whole other level.

After a tour of the office, Mike and I sat down to look at a pile of client studies he had pulled for me. He went through each example and explained the client, the intention and the resulting action. The kind of representation his company provided varied.

Fill in examples here

There were consistencies between the techniques of Jack and Mike. They shared some of the same frustrations and some of the same love for the role they got to play within our political system. They both said the same thing to me several times:

“You, the constituent, have more power than I do.”

Whether you are working in a smaller setting, a large corporate setting, or somewhere in between, first person narrative still trumps all. Mike sites the main barrier to having that narrative heard is the fact that there are so many voices, it can be hard to break through the masses. This is part of what Mike’s firm specializes in. To remedy this, they have created a training center for people to come and learn how to present themselves at press conferences, on CNN, and any other large scale forum. They train everyone from CEO’s of major corporations to patients like me.

At some point during my talk with Mike, I began to feel both excitement for the impressive work that I was seeing in front of me and discouraged that this kind of lobbying skill was reserved for larger fish. Mike addressed this by encouraging me to approach firms like his. He repeatedly asked me to “not write it off” but instead ask for help. If there was a compelling story, a policy that needed addressed, or some other valuable message from a small organization or individual, Mike believes firms like his might be able to help. One way they could do this is by doing the work pro-bono and another way is to scale back the effort where it may not be a full out marketing campaign but the connections could be used to distribute important information, press releases etc.

I like Mike’s suggestion and I have another of my own. If I were to take away the glossiness of the campaigns I saw at Mike’s office, there would still be an essential, effective core. These campaigns were not just veneer, they were smart, concise, and clear. They took time and preparation. Whether they were letters, press releases, or large television campaigns, they were not off the cuff. They took in to consideration their audience, the political climate of that moment, and the emotional hook. When I walked away from the campaigns, there was never any question about what “the ask” was, either to the general population or to a particular political figure.

Bottom Line: We may not all be able to hire big firms like Mike’s. That doesn’t mean we can’t think like them. Make relationships the foundation of your advocacy efforts and then design a clear, memorable, and well-thought out campaign. We may not have access to industrial printers but we can all be prepared and clever in our presentation.

The Dark Side of Professional Lobbying:

If you ask a lobbyist why the profession has such a bad reputation, they will likely tell you that they are misunderstood. For those that have integrity and a true respect for the process, this is true. However, lobbyists did not get a bad reputation for no reason. There are some questionable lobbying practices and some that are simply corrupt.

Perhaps one of the more commonly known, and widely disapproved of, lobbying practices is called “the junket” which is an excursion for the purpose of pleasure at public expense. Junkets might include all-expenses-paid conferences in luxurious locations, or expensive meals and wine. An example of this kind of extravagance is Mr. Tom Delay’s many trips paid for by various organizations. These include: 10 days in Kona, Hawaii in 2002, in which the American Association of Airport Executives reimbursed him for $5,967.28, a trip to Singapore in 2001 in which The Heritage Foundation reimbursed Mr. and Mrs. Delay’s for $8,428, and the same year the National Center for Public Policy Research paid for his and his wife’s visit to Scotland that same year with a reimbursement of $28,106.

Large organizations set aside great sums of money to fund lobbying efforts. As an example, The Pharmaceutical Research and Manufacturers of America had $150 million budgeted for 2004. It is easy to see with these examples why the public looks down on the lobbying profession. While the practices may be tolerated, they clearly carry with them an air of bribery. With such lavish gifts, it is only logical to conclude that government officials would be unable to make objective decisions in the face of such gifts.

In 2007, the Honest Leadership and Open Government Act was passed to try an address some of the corruption, like the examples above. Here are a few key points of the law as found on commoncause.org:

Prohibiting Gifts by Lobbyists

  • Prohibits lobbyists from providing gifts or travel to Members of Congress with knowledge that the gift or travel is in violation of House or Senate Rules.

Full Public Disclosure of Lobbying Activity

  • Requires lobbyist disclosure filings to be filed twice as often, by decreasing the time between filing from semi-annual to quarterly.
  • Requires lobbyist disclosures in both the Senate and House to be filed electronically and requires creation of a public searchable Internet database of such information.
  • Increases civil penalty for knowing and willful violations of the Lobby Disclosure Act from $50,000 to $200,000 and imposes a criminal penalty of up to five years for knowing and corrupt failure to comply with the Act.
  • Requires the Government Accountability Office to audit annually lobbyist compliance with disclosure rules.
  • Requires lobbyists to certify they have not given gifts or travel that would violate Senate or House rules.
  • Requires the disclosure of businesses or organizations that contribute more than $5,000 and actively participate in lobbying activities by certain coalitions and associations.

New Transparency for Lobbyist Political Donations, Bundling and other Financial Contributions

  • Requires disclosure to the Federal Election Commission when lobbyists bundle over $15,000 semiannually in campaign contributions for any federal elected official, candidate (including Senate, House and Presidential), or leadership PAC.
  • Requires lobbyists to disclose to the Secretary of the Senate and the House Clerk their campaign contributions and payments to Presidential libraries, Inaugural Committees or entities controlled by, named for or honoring Members of Congress.

Prohibited Use of Private Aircraft

  • Requires that candidates, other than those running for a seat in the House, pay the fair market value of airfare (charter rates) when using non-commercial jets to travel. (This affects senate, presidential and vice-presidential candidates)
  • Requires candidates for the House to comply with rule XXIII (15), which prohibits use of non-commercial aircraft.

Toughening Penalties for Falsifying Financial Disclosure Forms

  • Increases the penalty for Members of Congress, Senior Staff and Senior Executive officials for falsifying or failing to report financial disclosure forms from $10,000 to $50,000 and establishes criminal penalties of up to one year of imprisonment.

For those of us who do not seek a profession in politics, it is likely that these types of activities will remain obstructed from our view. However, it is important to be aware such practices exist and to understand the power of big companies and lobbyists with questionable practices.

As my lobbyist guide, Jack, told me “You win some and you lose a lot.” This is not a perfect system, far from it, but that does not mean it is not worth your time and effort. Even against big companies or fancy corporate lobbyists, the patient voice can still prevail.

The Patient Experience, Front and Center, Inspires Change

In the 1960’s and early 1970’s patients with kidney disease requiring dialysis were struggling. This expensive treatment was not covered by Medicare and had to be paid for by private insurance or out of pocket. In 1971, serious policy debates focusing on national health insurance were underway in both Congress and the

White House. During a Congressional Committee Meeting, The National Association of Patients on Hemodialysis (NAPH) was allowed to speak about the importance of insuring people receiving dialysis.

Despite urges not to by several kidney organizations, the vice-president of NAPH chose to take his dialysis treatment in full view of the committee before the meeting officially began. He was accompanied by a reluctant physician there to safe-guard the treatment and the patient. The press discovered this story and made the dramatic event known to the general public.

Some believe this brave display influenced the decision to create the Medicare ESRD (End Stage Renal Disease) Program; giving dialysis patients meeting Medicare criteria the coverage they need for treatment. Others believe the testimony of a parent of a hemophiliac child made a greater impression on congress. Either way, the fact remains: the patient and family voice was a catalyst for change on the national level

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