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.