Many people assume the lobbying business was born during the presidency of Ulysses S. Grant. The general, who loved his whiskey and cigars, would repair to the lobby of the Willard Hotel, which sits a few blocks from the White House. As soon as Grant lit his stogie, he would be set upon by mendicants and petitioners of all stripes—who had the kind of presidential access their lobbyist heirs can only dream about. Although that prestigious hotel assiduously promoted the mythic origin of the word lobbyist, the appellation was in use long before Grant’s tenure.
The word is probably sourced from the lobbies in the House of Commons, where the British public could speak with members of the government, but the act of lobbying got its start as soon as early man figured out he needed something from someone else. In fact, its practitioners are often compared to those working in the world’s oldest profession, though it’s not clear who should feel more insulted. Because our politicians can’t imagine a human activity they shouldn’t control, their lobbyist friends, generally seen as snake-oil salesmen, seldom lack work.
The dysfunction of our national government does not result only from overregulation and unrestrained spending. A culture of corruption has long plagued our body politic. Moneyed interests on both ends of the political spectrum have employed legions of lobbyists, strategic advisors and public relations experts to control our national legislative and executive branches.
I should know, since I was one of them. For years I was able to get pretty much anything I wanted for my clients. In my case, scandal brought me down and ended my career. But casting me into prison didn’t change how this game is played.
While most Americans feel the system will never be reformed, recent media focus on congressional perfidy has invigorated citizen activists bent on ending the rule of the elites in our nation’s capital. Shocking reports of congressmen amassing wealth through insider trading and receiving sweetheart home loans have driven the approval rating of the legislative branch below that of Casey Anthony. Even the most obtuse representative is starting to notice the rumblings of discontent in the hinterlands.
A call is rising in the land to stop members of Congress from enriching themselves through public service. It’s possible that reform advocates on both sides of the political divide will come together this year to push legislation that will prevent public servants from cashing in on their service by stopping lobbyists and their clients from making federal political contributions, mandating term limits for Congress and forcing legislators to apply to themselves all laws they pass for the citizens they represent. These reforms would level the playing field in Washington and undermine the dominance of moneyed interests.
Furthermore, a national consensus is building that our federal government is too big and controls our lives in too many ways. Even President Obama, who engineered the greatest expansion of federal control in recent times, has sought authority from Congress to eliminate redundant governmental agencies. Still, those advocating an all-encompassing nanny state often don’t see that every time the Washington behemoth expands, more lobbyists and special interests flood the corridors of power to seek privilege.
There is no way to know whether these nascent efforts at reform will one day result in real change. We can only hope for the best. In the meantime we have to deal with reality—and reality means thousands of federal employees working overtime to complicate our lives. So what do people do when their interests are about to be adversely impacted by a feckless congressman or his staff?
Let’s say you own the Acme Picture Frame Company based in the Midwest. Your family has made picture frames for generations, and they’re the nicest picture frames available. One day a septuagenarian senator from New England has his staff purchase a picture frame from a local emporium. They don’t buy an Acme frame. They buy a cheap imitation, and when the venerable senator lifts it to hang a picture of his dog Fido, the frame comes apart, cutting his hand.
Being used to getting everything he wants in life, the senator throws a tantrum. When he is done fulminating, he knows what to do. A quick call to his legislative director is soon followed by the introduction of new legislation: the Omnibus Picture Frame Act of 2012. The act regulates every aspect of the frame-production business and mandates a process that requires Acme to close its factory and completely retool. In these recessionary times, that means your company goes under. What do you do?
One response might be to call your family and workers together, thank them for their years of dedicated service and ask the last one remaining to shut the doors and turn out the lights.
Another reaction might be to ignore these silly new laws and keep making quality frames, as you have for generations—and when the FBI kicks in your door and carts you away to the federal hoosegow, you’ll have the satisfaction of telling the other inmates you didn’t buckle to the Man.
Or you might realize your problem started in Washington and must be solved in Washington. You have as much luck getting your local congressman to focus on your problem as you do getting your teenager to clean his room, and since you can’t relocate to the nation’s capital and quickly build relationships with the power players, you have one choice: Hire a lobbyist.
A lobbyist’s existence revolves around solving problems like this. He has probably spent a lifetime building relationships and knows how the legislative process works. Although the cost of hiring a lobbyist isn’t included in your company’s operating budget, it is a relative bargain if it saves your business. After finding a suitable clothespin for your nose, you set out to engage in the malodorous game of lobbying.
You first need to figure out what kind of lobbyist you need. If the assault on your industry has been building for years and has spread like a cancer through Congress, you might need to engage one of the bigger lobbying shops. Often, powerful lobbying operations are housed within law firms. They usually include several former congressmen and senators on the roster and undoubtedly cost a fortune—especially if the effort requires many lobbyists working many hours. Since most law firms bill by the hour, the cost is likely to be exorbitant.
As for our fictional Omnibus Picture Frame Act of 2012, let’s posit that our redoubtable senator is still steamed about his cut hand and has it in mind to move the bill when he gets around to it. But since he’s a senior senator and probably chairman or ranking member of some prestigious Senate committee, he has been occupied with other responsibilities. The threat remains, but for now it can probably be dealt with by a smaller, less expensive lobbying shop. Your task is finding the right one.
Having been a member for decades, you contact the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and ask for advice. It gives you the names of three smaller lobbying shops, and you send each an e-mail outlining your issue. After they reply, you get on the phone.
The lobbyists seem like normal people, and even intelligent. So much for stereotypes. They all outline the same basic plan. The first phase is research and intelligence gathering. That means they’ll pick up the phone to the senator’s staff to see what’s in the senator’s head. Then they’ll study the Omnibus Picture Frame Act to see where it is vulnerable to attack. The second phase is to prepare written materials that support your position and refute any arguments supporting the act. The third phase is for the lobbyist to meet with the senator’s staff and, if necessary, the senator. If they can kill the bill with an appeal to reason, great. If not, they will need to mount a more extensive and more expensive campaign to combat the legislation before it spreads throughout Congress.
You want the bill killed at that first meeting, of course, because you want to sleep at night and you don’t want this lobbying effort to eat all your profits. So now that you understand what the lobbyists need to do, whom do you hire?
One of your potential lobbyists is an expert on how to make picture frames and knows every nuance of the business. Another is an expert on the legislative process and is able to recite the names of every congressman and senator for the past 40 years. The third is less certain of the legislative process and wouldn’t know a picture frame from a windowsill but plays golf with the senator and has been one of his main sources of campaign funds for more than a decade.
If all you want is to amend the bill, the expert on picture frames might be the best negotiator. If you need to tie up the bill in the labyrinthine legislative process, the second lobbyist would know just what to do. But you need to get this thing killed fast, so you hire the golfer.
After several phone calls, your lobbyist seems to understand your business—at least enough of it to have an intelligent conversation with the senator. He then explains to you the way Washington really works. He asks you to contribute to the senator’s campaign and political action committee to the maximum extent allowed by law and to get your spouse and any other adult you can convince to do the same. The more, the better.
You need a shower to wash off the political filth, since this is the very thing you disdain about politics. But far too often this is how it works in our nation’s capital. The lobbyist serves two masters: his client and the legislator. The corrupt game is played in virtually every office on Capitol Hill. Access is granted to those who raise the money. Lobbyists raise money from any source they can, but their most reliable source of donations is their clients, who need results.
Within a few days you courier five $2,000 checks for the senator’s reelection committee and two $5,000 checks for his leadership political action committee. Leadership PACs are one of the many smarmy loopholes in the campaign finance law. When it comes to money, everyone in Congress is a leader.
Checks in hand, the lobbyist dons his green-checkered pants and yellow-striped polo shirt and hits the links with his friend, the statesman with a recently acquired animus toward picture frames. By the time they make the turn to the back nine, the lobbyist has convinced his friend to drop the silly Omnibus Picture Frame Act, and the senator has banked additional contributions for his already assured reelection. In fact, since the golfing event is now a fund-raiser, the lobbyist can pay for the greens fees too. If there was a conversation that probably crossed the legal line of quid pro quo, neither would ever admit to it. Just another day at the office in our nation’s capital—even when that office is a golf course.
But let’s say it is not so easy. What if our New England senator took the draft of the Omnibus Picture Frame Act of 2012, circulated it among his colleagues and garnered co-sponsors? Let’s say he also called his state’s congressional delegation and asked them to push the bill in the House of Representatives, and they introduced it with some modifications that make the approved manufacturing process even more complex. At this point the local Capitol Hill media hear about the bill and start writing articles, which are replicated as “public interest” stories in The Washington Post and The New York Times. Soon the articles are picked up by the Associated Press and you are reading them in your hometown newspaper. The threat that Acme will be wiped out is growing by the hour.
You can no longer avail yourself of the services of the golfer. No matter how many rounds of golf they play, the senator couldn’t put the genie back in the bottle even if he wanted to. You are now faced with a huge effort to stop the legislation that threatens your company. What do you do?
For openers, you are not able to afford a full Washington lobbying campaign alone. The cost will have jumped from five to six or possibly seven figures. You need to form a coalition. Surely other picture frame producers in America are as upset as you are about this bill. You need to find them and get them to commit funds. You need a war chest.
You now must go with one of the larger lobbying firms. Its plan will be grand and costly. It will need to send legions of lobbyists to Capitol Hill to combat the spread of the bill and to lobby members who have signed on as co-sponsors to remove their names from the legislation.
Every stage of the effort is expanded, starting with the intelligence gathering. Instead of having to understand the motivations and plans of one senior senator from New England, the lobbyists now need to comprehend the ruminations of scores of members. The lobbyists will need to canvass Congress (both houses), take a vote count and launch an effort to thwart the bill. They also need to know every detail about your industry. A good lobbyist will constantly pressure his client for more information, since smart lobbyists recognize that the hooks needed to win are in those details.
While they’re working Capitol Hill, the lobbyists will need to make sure your industry isn’t being vilified in the press, which would ensure additional support for the act. They may need to subcontract with a public relations firm to handle this, depending on how much press the issue attracts.
If the lobbyists are creative, they will work with you to expand your coalition, bringing in not only other frame makers to help foot the bill but also vendors who sell your companies the goods and services they require. For example, your company might buy a boatload of timber each month. Who are the suppliers in the chain of delivery? The interests of each are affected by the act, and they need to weigh in. A smart grassroots campaign, in which the vendors are organized to call their representatives, can have a powerful impact.
When the lobbyists hit Capitol Hill to meet with Congress, they will be armed with extensive research materials that show how many jobs the bill will kill and how it will ultimately serve the interests of frame makers overseas, perhaps in China. They will employ their powers of persuasion to stop the act. Tying their efforts in to national consensus positions will pay serious dividends. The goal will be to peel off one by one any supporters the senator has enlisted. They will likely have their own golfers on staff who play just as regularly with senators and congressmen, and they will undoubtedly raise even more money than the sole practitioner in our first scenario.
The request for campaign funds will be the same, only it will go out to everyone affected by this act. Instead of a few thousand, the coalition will become a pseudo political party, raising enough money to become a political force.
If you hire a powerful lobbying firm, most of the lobbyists will have migrated to K Street—the lobbyists’ lair—from Capitol Hill, having themselves served as congressmen or congressional aides. They will have social relationships with virtually every congressional office. When I was lobbying, we knew we could count on more than 100 of the offices in a pinch. Beyond that, we had strong relationships with almost 300 members and their staffs. This is average for a major lobbying firm.
If you pick one of the powerhouse firms, these relationships are renewed almost daily through social and political events such as meals, fund-raisers, sporting events and of course golf. A lobbyist who doesn’t spend countless hours creating new relationships will have little access, and that lobbyist will lose in a scrum with competitors who keep their relationships fresh.
An effective lobbyist will not only get to know your industry and issues but will know how other industries with similar challenges fared in the same legislative arena. He or she will know when to recommend a frontal attack and when to suggest political legerdemain. Knowing how much pressure to bring (and when to bring it) is a vital talent you want in your lobbyist. When it comes to lobbying, being a heavy-handed omadhaun is as ineffective as being timid.
The most successful of the elite lobbyists are the least lazy. It seems incomprehensible that top lobbyists might be lazy, but some are. The best in the field take advantage of this weakness. The lobbyist who works out a plan for victory is generally considered well prepared for the battle. But lobbyists who war-game both their own and their opponents’ likely moves are the ones most likely to prevail. When I was lobbying, we were rarely defeated because we not only created our own game plan—with countermeasures geared to blunt our opponents’ responses—but also created our opponents’ plans as if we were in their shoes. There were no imaginable (or even unimaginable) eventualities we didn’t consider. In fluid legislative battles, overpreparation is essential.
A winning lobbyist will also not stop fighting until the final bell is rung. Often legislative fights are lost in the last moments because one side declares victory too soon. The right lobbyist will stay vigilant to the end, which usually means the congressional recess.
In today’s climate, the right lobbyists can get almost anything they want. Whether it is protection for Acme Picture Frame, a special tax break for a corporation, a sweetheart contract for a labor union or the expenditure of billions of dollars on bootless federal programs, the lobbyist who knows how to play the system and who has access beyond the ken of the average citizen can have more control than many elected officials.
That might work to your benefit if the federal government is harming your interests, but this kind of special interest is ultimately harmful to our republic and to our future. We can only hope the American people send more Mr. Smiths and far fewer future lobbyists to Washington.