What lobbyists do

Posted by on Jan 25, 2016 in Political U[niversity] | 0 comments

The stereotypes

Everyone thinks they know what a lobbyist is. It is perhaps the most stereotyped profession in the world:

How voters see lobbyists

Lobbyist_voter view

 

 

 

 

 

How legislators see lobbyists

Rich Uncle Pennybags

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

How lobbyists see themselves

superhero

 

 

 

 

 

 

The reality

First, a definition: Lobbying is the act of attempting to influence decisions made by officials in government, most often legislators or members of regulatory agencies. There are several types of lobbyists:

  • Corporate lobbyists protect the economic interests of their employers.
  • Non-profit lobbyists represent universities, religious groups, medical charities, and others who may be seeking government grants to fund their projects, or to advance the purposes of the organization.
  • Citizen lobbyists are individuals who wish to influence their elected officials to vote a certain way proposed legislation or regulations.

While there are many professional lobbyists (particularly at the federal and state levels), most are volunteers, or employees whose lobbying efforts are just part of their job responsibilities. At A Bit Political, we work to encourage citizen lobbying, which is a good activity for the Protester/Activist and Leader/Organizer Political Personalities.

Lobbyists and campaign finance

The U.S. Government and many states maintain registers of professional lobbyists. The purpose of these regulations is to help voters understand who is trying to influence their elected officials, and often to track their spending to influence legislation. Campaign finance laws identify contributors to political campaigns, many of which are groups represented by lobbyists.

Most of the negativity associated with lobbying comes from the fact that the same people who attempt to influence legislation cut checks to candidate campaigns. Legislators, in particular, often spend most of their time soliciting campaign contributions, leading to the impression that they are trading votes for cash. Technically, the contributions do not come directly from corporations or non-profit organizations, but from political action committees (PACs) that they organize. Organizations represented by the lobbyists may also contribute to multi-candidate PACs and “super PACs.” Super PACs cannot contribute to candidates, but may independently spend money to support or oppose a candidate. The intent of super PACs was to put a layer of separation between organizations and candidates. However, super PACs tend to increase public hostility to campaign finance in general, particularly since their money is frequently used to fund negative advertising against a candidate they oppose.

However, the lobbyist-campaign finance relationship is not as simple as trading dollars for votes. It is true that lobbyists usually favor incumbent legislators (regardless of party), because they have an existing relationship with the incumbent. Labor unions almost invariably support Democrats. However, some corporate PACs hedge their bets by supporting both candidates in a Presidential race. For example, in 2008, five of the ten largest contributors to both President Obama and John McCain gave money to both candidates.

What lobbyists really do

Professional lobbyists (formally known as governmental relations managers):

  • Study the interests of their client to understand the client’s goals and what actions tend to block the client from achieving those goals.
  • Keep track of proposed legislation (bills) to identify those likely to affect their client. They study the legal language of important bills to determine their effect on their client.
  • Meet with legislators (or regulators in the case of agency rules) to provide them information on the expected impact of a bill on the client, and occasionally (where this information is available, such as by polling data) its impact on a legislator’s re-election chances.
  • Meet with others who have the same position on the bill to coordinate efforts, share information, and iron out minor differences.
  • Meet with the media to disseminate their position.

It is an advantage, but not absolutely necessary, for a lobbyist to have prior experience in the legislature or agency they are working with. Knowledge of their former colleagues’ beliefs, communication style, and personal quirks adds greatly to the lobbyist’s value to their employer. Those who enter lobbying without this experience are usually paid less, and have a bachelor’s degree in political science or a legal background.

The ethics of lobbying

Many people would like to outlaw lobbyists; but this is impossible, because the First Amendment to the U.S. Constitution guarantees the right of the people “to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” As noted above, the federal government and many states require registration of professional lobbyists and require them to report donations to candidate campaigns.

The About.com money site highlights the concern many Americans have about lobbying this way:

We have a murky system where money changes hands and decisions are made. Because of the lack of transparency, people tend to believe that corruption exists and that no one in the political system is working for the good of the people.

The purpose of registration and campaign finance laws is to make this activity “transparent” to the media and the people – that is, to make specifics knowable to the public. Laws also place limits on the amount of outright gifts a lobbyist can make to elected officials (specifying that they be of “nominal value,” which can be $50 or less).

There are two rules that mark an ethical lobbyist:

  • A lobbyist must never lie. Sounds counterintuitive, doesn’t it? The message may be highly nuanced because legislation is complex. However, when I applied for several lobbying positions thirty years ago, the first thing my interviewer usually emphasized was strict honesty. The reason is credibility. Credibility is the only thing a lobbyist has to give an elected official. Once a lobbyist lies, there is no reason for an official to believe anything else they say. The lobbyist no longer has any value to their employer.
  • A lobbyist must consider the common good. To Michael McCarthy, a professor of philosophy at Vassar College and an expert on ethics in public policy,

an ethical approach to lobbying requires “authentic citizenship”, which he defines as “an enlarged, public-spirited mentality, a form of civic self-transcendence, in which we place the sustainable good of the whole community at the forefront of our thinking and judging.

The clash of interests

Finally, we need to consider this: It is very rare for legislators to hear just one side of an issue. For example, if there is a bill in the legislature to regulate a bank, the legislator will hear not just from the banks themselves. They will hear from the bankers’ associations, consumer groups, the state agency that regulates banking; and possibly people and businesses who deposit money, borrow it, or do business with the banks.

Thus, while each lobbyist works to sway the legislator to their point of view, the collective action of all the lobbyists will work to give the legislator a balanced view of the subject. This is not always true at the federal level, where lobbyists may have to meet with staff members, and where the power of money is much greater. But if a legislator finds and embraces that balanced view, they will most likely be working in the public interest. Especially if they hear from people like you, the citizen lobbyists!

Your turn

Tell us what you think in the Comments section below. Even better, find a bill in your legislature or city council that you care about, and become a citizen lobbyist for or against the issue. We can help with your citizen lobbying efforts with training and research assistance as part of our consulting work. Contact us for more information.

 

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