Lessons for lobbyists as new session begins
Author: Jared Wright - January 14, 2011 - Updated: January 14, 2011
Are you getting ready to be an executive branch department or article lobbyist at the state legislature?
Here are rules of conduct that may prevent some unfortunate episodes and might save some legislation from defeat. New non-executive branch lobbyists might also gain some assistance from this column.
Rule No. 1: If you ask a legislator for help, either in voting for a bill, offering an amendment, speaking for the measure, or protecting department’s funding, be prepared to reciprocate. There are no free lunches at the legislature.
For many years I was the advocate for the Dept. of Regulatory Agencies beginning with the Sunset process, which I carried as chief sponsor in 1976. In the years that followed I carried bills to modernize the licensing process and expand DORA’s role in reviewing regulatory legislation.
When I asked their support for a grievance board for non-licensed psychotherapists, DORA did help. Not only because the concept made sense to provide standards and discipline, but also because it came from some one who had battled for them in the legislative arena.
Reciprocity may not have to do with legislation, which brings us to:
Rule No. 2: If a legislator asks for assistance on a matter, do it unless it is contrary to some policy of your office. Legislators are elected and their constituents have to deal with government.
Often, a third or fourth echelon employee gives a constituent a hard time in resolving a problem. The constituent complains to the legislator who then asks you and the top people in your department to render assistance. Your department renders assistance. The constituent is grateful to the legislator and the legislator feels warmly about you.
The legislator is now someone who will listen to you on the merits of a particular bill. Even an opponent can be softened by the way you and your department handle a constituent problem.
Rule No. 3: In pushing for legislation, begin by deciding how much you can delegate to potential allies. The legislature is clogged with special interests represented by numerous lobbyists. In Colorado we have gone from a few lobbyists to hundreds in a very short time. If your issue and a private special interest lobbyist’s issue is the same, take a back seat and let the private special interest lobbyist do the heavy work. You be the information source.
The legislators expect you to have battles with private lobbyists but they can get upset when the executive branch tries to be the heavy.
Rule No. 4: When choosing the executive branch lobbyist, remember that there are times when the governor says he or she wants something and you have to do it. If you are the executive manager, the in-house lobbyist you choose from your department had better be as professional as those representing private groups.
A good bureaucrat is not necessarily a good lobbyist. The lobbyist you use is your face to many legislators. Your ability to keep the same person on the payroll for many years helps build up the rapport with legislators. Be sure to get feedback from many sources as to how they view your in-house lobbyist.
Rule No. 5: Don’t go overboard on any particular issue. If your bill is stalled in the House Appropriations Committee think twice before trying to force it out. There is always next session. Usually it is not a matter of all or nothing. Usually it is a question of how much of a bill or an issue you can get under the circumstances.
If a legislator has to compromise on his or her issue why should you be any different? If too many legislators oppose you, take what you can get. Your office will be around for some time. The legislative turnover is enormous. After voting several thousand times in a session, I have often forgotten why I voted a particular way the previous year. Next session you try again and add a little more to what you had already obtained. The bureaucracy always outlasts the legislature. The Chinese civil service outlasted Genghis Khan.
Rule No. 6: Avoid making enemies, because the legislator you oppose may be the one you need to help you on the next issue. Or at least avoid making unnecessary enemies.
Think your position through. What are the consequences of the confrontation? If you are opposing a particular bill, is the Senator’s pet project really that devastating when weighed against his or her ability to cut off funding for an important program that you want?
Can you win in a less obtrusive manner by getting his or her bill stuck in Appropriations when your department reports that it will cost “X” dollars to fund? Or can you get help from a legislator who is an opponent of your opponent? If you have to take on a legislator directly, let him or her know in advance and the reasons why. There is almost always a possible compromise.
Rule No. 7: Never surprise a legislator by making your objections known for the first time at a committee hearing. I have seen legislators almost apoplectic when that happens and you have made an enemy for life.
I have served with legislators who kept a little black book. Whenever they felt wronged the name and event went into that book. When they had a chance for revenge they took it even if they would otherwise have been in support of an issue or it would have helped their constituents. For some legislators revenge is the sweetest dessert.
Always remember the legislature is not a level playing field. When you send your staff members over to testify before a committee be sure they remember.
Rule No. 8: Never be confrontational at legislative hearings.
You don’t make points by showing how stupid a particular legislator is. Always choose someone to speak who maintains a modulated tone of voice, who doesn’t shout. Legislators like to shout at you or each other, but they get upset if you do that to them. (It may have something to do with belief in their own superiority.)
Lobbyists who choose witnesses should realize the best witnesses are not necessarily the best experts. If you can present your support or opposition in a conversational tone, do it. Your statement doesn’t have to be dull just because it isn’t prepared. There is nothing wrong with a display of emotion. Just don’t try to overpower your listener by loudness
Rule No. 9: Don’t exaggerate your testimony. Never tell lies or give half-truths even if the full truth is adverse to your position.
If you miss out here you might as well empty your locker. You really have nothing going for you as a member of the executive branch except your credibility. If you lose that, if you are caught in a lie, then get another job because in Colorado you are dead in the water.
Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House followed by one voluntary term as “advisor to the House in 1993-94.”