This week, let’s talk about the folks who are, at least in many minds, the great legislative “bogeyman” — that is, lobbyists! These are the presumably dapper, silver-tongued devils who are protecting something we talked about last week — interest. How insidiously un-American!! …Oops! I quickly realized that if we truly believe in freedom of speech, then everyone has a right to protect their interests by petitioning their government and that doing so is America’s real national pastime.
Now, when we say the word “lobbyist,” the image that leaps to mind is that of the professional or corporate lobbyist. And if they were the only ones hovering around a legislature, that would be significantly unfair. However, as with dogs, lobbyists come in an amazing variety of types, backgrounds and styles (OK, maybe I’m being unfair to dogs). Though the corporate faces tend to be more consistent and polished, many are the days when the folks representing the nonprofits, local governments, unions, membership organizations, citizens groups, this, that and several others (to include the watchdog groups keeping an eye on the corporations and trade associations) well outnumber the corporate types. It can be crazy, but I do find it reassuring to see opposition in the world of lobbying. Competition in the marketplace of ideas is just as valuable as competition in the marketplace for goods and services.
But I digress. I realize a great deal has been written about lobbyists, what they do, how they do it and whether these things are ethical or not. I doubt I have anything new to add to that discussion. So instead, I’ll ask you to put on some legislator shoes, and join me in seeing what it’s like to be “lobbied.”
I’m sure it’s no surprise to learn that legislators are getting lobbied even before they’re sworn into office. Since the General Assembly allows pre-filing of bills before a legislative session begins, comments on them can be rolling in not long after election day. This being the 21st century, the vast majority of what you receive is via email. The style is anything goes: from friendly, to respectful, to cajoling, to pleading, to aggressive, to hostile and finally to threatening. Your people skills are immediately put to the test.
Once you’ve been sworn in and the legislative session has begun, then the in- person stuff in the “halls of power” kicks in. Folks will drop in at your office, make appointments, catch you while you’re walking somewhere, pull you aside before and after committee meetings, ask to take you to lunch or dinner, send notes in with a page while you’re on the House floor asking you to step out, and any other way they can get a hold of you. If you like lots of attention, this is nirvana! If you’re not so keen on it, your ability to remain polite gets a workout…
When they corner you, the pitch you receive can be rational, emotional or both. Private citizens more often go for the emotional vein, and the professional lobbyists more often try to build a logical case. But even with logical arguments, you quickly realize that you can be snookered by crafty use of perspective and context! Don’t give your word, yea or nay, unless you’re sure of where you stand.
Harkening back to the topic of interest, you’ll soon experience another time-honored tactic, where the person lobbying you will equate the interest of the group they are advocating for with the broad public interest. It’s wise to be noncommittal in response, because it can be dangerous to do otherwise. When the professionals lobby you this way, it’s simply because they are adept enough to deliver the message as a rhetorical tool — if they think they need to (the client might be standing right next to them). You can safely let this go in one ear and out the other. However, when you receive this pitch from someone who is actually a member of the interest group, bite your tongue. I think it’s a universal truth that people inevitably hold whatever it is that puts bread on their table as a foundation brick of truth, justice and the American way.
By now, I’m sure the question of lobbying and lies has raised its ugly head. As a legislator, you get told a lot of eye-opening things, and sometimes you feel your ability to read people is sorely pressed. When dealing with the professional lobbyists, however, there is another universal truth working in your favor. Legislators call it the “you get to lie once” rule. As the name suggests, word-of-mouth, kicked off by an angry legislator, would quickly destroy the career of any lobbyist who gets caught pulling the wool over someone’s eyes. I’ve not seen it unleashed during my tenure, but it does get discussed.
Finally, another tip about the professional lobbyists. As I mentioned, they are generally more polished (who on earth would pay to be represented by someone who isn’t?). In fact, the very best among them are probably some of the most impressively well-rounded people ever to set foot in the captital. These folks are attorneys with steel trap minds, terrific people skills and the ability to speak eloquently in almost any circumstance. They are so intellectually dexterous that they will gladly tell you the arguments of their opponents, and then just as easily disassemble them, with brutal efficiency, for your edification. Many of us humble, grinning, backslapping political types can seem like Neanderthals in comparison. But just remember this: we Neanderthals tend to be reflexively on guard around such superhumans. You don’t get elected without that instinct.
Next week I’ll introduce you to legislative gambits.
Rep. Doug Holt, R-Social Circle, can be reached at 404-656-0152 or Doug@DougHolt.org.