Author’s note: I wrote this after my internship with the League of Women Voters of WA this Spring (see Internship on Capitol Hill). With the election over and a new legislative session around the corner, I hope my words of experience can help others enter the world of lobbying.
As a new lobbyist, you may have a picture of yourself going to meetings with legislators, making back-room bargains and wearing power like a cloak. Indeed, the picture the media paints of lobbyists is of a cloak-and-dagger approach, with money from questionable sources exchanging hands and no one really knowing what others are saying. For most lobbyists, this is not the case.
First of all, though, what is lobbying? What does a lobbyist do?
According to Chapter 42.17A of the Revised Code of Washington, the Public Disclosure Law, a lobbyist is “anyone who attempts to influence state legislation or the legislative action of a state agency.” This is a bit broad – most citizens do not consider themselves lobbyists, even if they have signed petitions or written letters to their public officials. To narrow it down, the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, a lobby is “an organized group of people who work together to influence government decisions that relate to a particular industry, issue, etc.” Lobbying, then, is participating in efforts to influence government decisions. This is done in a number of ways, but the overarching principle is communication. A lobbyist is therefore first and foremost responsible for communicating about their issues and group positions with lawmakers and with others involved in the policy process.
There are five key aspects of lobbying: Listening, strategizing, inter-group communication, testifying, and meeting with legislators. Each of these parts plays a key role in forming the relationships needed to be an effective lobbyist. As unglamourous as it may seem, listening truly is the most important aspect of any relationship, and that is where I will begin.
There are always conversations going on in the hallways, or whispered during committee hearings. When members of multiple groups are part of the “huddle,” finding ways to include yourself in these conversations – anything from simple eavesdropping to inserting yourself into and participating in the discussion – can yield significant amounts of information about inter-group dynamics without raising eyebrows. It can also be helpful in maintaining inter-group communication.
Listen in committee meetings and in hearings. Listen for four things: agenda, message, tone, and questions from the committee. Over time, you will learn to recognize the players and get an idea of what their agenda is, but it is important to stay on top of the current message. The same stakeholder may express completely different opinions in a work session and a hearing, and those discrepancies can be problematic. Their tone will indicate what sort of reception they expect to get from the committee, and the questions the committee members ask can help you to anticipate the future of the bill with remarkable accuracy.
Questions from committee members are typically one of two types: information-seeking or aggressive. The former are open-ended or asking for a specific data point, and indicate that the member is taking what the speaker said seriously, and wants to get a clearer picture of the testimony. The latter are readily identified by the single-mindedness with which the questioner pursues their train of thought, not stopping to listen to the answer, or when the questioner makes claims that border on the absurd.
Finally, listen to the answers to your questions. You likely have plenty, and finding someone who can answer them is important. When you do, their answers merit your attention. If their explanation goes over your head, say so. At the Capitol, everyone is busy; if someone takes time from their day to answer your questions, they probably care that you understand their answers.
This may seem obvious: Go in knowing what you want and push it as hard as you can, whenever you can. However, it gets nuanced fast. First of all, don’t testify too often. Testifying on everything you find interesting will make you an overly familiar face, and when an issue comes up where you really want to throw your weight around, your voice will carry less meaning. Second, there will be bills that you have conflicted feelings about. Perhaps the bill will cost money in a revenue-strapped state, but is good for the environment; maybe it helps one disenfranchised group in a way you find morally unappealing. Whatever it is, know your priorities and where you are and are not willing to be flexible. Most of all, recognize when your position is too nuanced to come across in testimony, and consider writing a letter or arranging a meeting with the sponsor about the bill instead.
If you are part of a lobbying group, this gains a second layer of complexity: you may be clear on your position on an issue, but a given bill may conflict with another lobbyist’s position, potentially forcing the group to take no position. Communicating with your group about the different bills that have come up, especially if you hope to take a stance on the bill, is vital in this case to prevent your group from appearing to have two different views on the issue. You may also be tempted to take a stand on your own, but be careful, as it may be difficult for others to distinguish your personal and professional positions, thereby creating confusion or even inflicting damage on the organization you represent.
- Inter-group Communication
One of the most important parts of being a lobbyist is communicating with other lobbyists to provide a united front on your issue or issues. By coordinating with other stakeholders, legislators are presented with a strong coalition. They get a single, consistent message on the topic, which makes it easier for them to lean your way – after all, from a political perspective, what legislator wants to sort through numerous similar but not aligned messages on a topic and then choose which to bestow favor upon? Inter-group coordination also prevents opponents from playing allies off against each other. Infighting among groups weakens the collective voice, making your lobbying less effective.
The main rule for testifying is to know yourself and your presentation style. If you are most comfortable having a scripted testimony, then absolutely do so; if you do better with talking points and improvising on the spot, then that is also a valid approach. It is more important to come across as confident in both yourself and your facts than to have a perfectly-worded testimony. Speak with emphasis, make eye contact with your audience when possible, and don’t worry too much about minor mistakes; a little passion about an issue will get more attention from legislators than testimony that puts your audience to sleep. If you are with an organization, keep in mind that your organization’s reputation and positions will likely precede you in the minds of the committee members giving context to anything that you say. You’ll also need to ensure that your testimony is in line with the positions of your organization.
You also want to keep in mind how often you testify in front of a committee. On the one hand, being known to the the legislators can be positive: they know your expertise and may come to value your opinion. However, if you gain a reputation for ineffective or inaccurate testimony, being a familiar face can work against you.
- Meeting with Legislators
Be brief. Legislators do not have a lot of time; if you get a meeting with them, make the most of every second, especially during session. Know what questions you want to ask ahead of time, and have your talking points and requests ready. If you are asked a question that you do not know the answer to, offer to provide resources to their legislative aide (if you don’t know which of their aides is best for a subject, don’t be afraid to ask). When you do literature drops, label it clearly so it reaches the designated recipient and keep your materials to a minimum: only include the information they absolutely must know. Be prepared to talk to the legislative aide rather than the legislator, since that is the aide’s job, and be confident that your core message will make it to legislator – whether they take it into consideration is, of course, another story.