By Bernard Fulton
The term “lobbyist” was coined by Ulysses S. Grant who, while President of the United States, would often be approached by suitors seeking favors as he rested with a drink in the lobby of the Willard Hotel, which still stands today a few blocks from the White House. For most people, “lobbyist” brings to mind a schemer who manipulates—if not outright bribes—the various levers of government. This, however, isn’t true.
For one thing, I don’t bribe.
Mostly, however, it isn’t true because it ignores that the various levers of government are pretty powerful in their own right, and they are eager to use that power to pursue their own agendas.
The first lever of government isn’t government at all, but consists of the policy wonks outside of government. They work in think tanks, universities, associations, law firms, or in-house at corporations, labor unions, membership organizations and, sometimes, are even lone constituents. Policy wonks are essentially people who find solutions to problems facing Americans and the world, or at least the problems that face the people who pay them.
These are not just people who speculate, such as the folks who don’t like welfare, assume the cause is laziness, and respond by proposing to yank it away at the first political opportunity. Speculation does exist and even gains purchase. See time limits on welfare, for example. However, most policy wonks are deeply immersed in the world for which they develop policy, and their ideas are born from real data, experiences, and study.
These policy wonks will note that, while some people may indeed be lazy, the vast majority want income through work but are separated from that opportunity by a history of societal neglect of educational opportunities and the vagaries of their local economies. If successful policy proposals do elude these policy wonks, it’s simply because answers are hard to find in a complicated world. Still, the fact that they have ideas is power.
The typical Congressional office—understaffed and overburdened with trying to settle arguments over ideas brought last year or even last decade—frankly doesn’t have the time to develop new ideas. Moreover, though politics isn’t often their forte, the policy wonk can at least say that their constituency, however small, supports the idea. A constituency is the start that the second lever needs to act.
The second lever of government is the legislature, which takes the policy wonks’ policies and changes them, as shown on School House Rock, into law. That being said, it ain’t easy. Fortunately, most legislators aren’t dogged by the conflict of following their heart or following their constituencies.
It’s fortunate because it simply isn’t likely that any one person, from deep inside their own mind and heart, will come up with the exact same idea as another person who is also living inside their own mind and heart. If every legislator only supported their own policy proposal, every bill would only have one vote and not the majority of the 435 House members and near super majority of 100 Senators it would need to win a trip up Pennsylvania Ave to the President. The legislator that seeks out, not just the right answer, but, instead, the right answer that is popular with constituents and colleagues, is also the legislator that is likely to find the bill that is politically relevant in Congress. This is the legislator that is likely to change the world, in however small a way.
Once Congress has changed the world, the third lever of government—the Administration—takes the credit. The executive branch gets to take the credit because it, not Congress, provides the products and services to the public that Congress authorizes and funds.
But the dynamic that sets them up for a disproportionate share of the credit, also sets them up for a disproportionate share of the blame. Though many may think I am now just discussing the politicians and political appointees within the administration, this applies just as much to the civil servants. No one wants a bad headline.
(Many observers may note that I haven’t mentioned the Supreme Court. That’s because if you want to influence the Supreme Court, you call a litigator, not a lobbyist.)
So, what does all this mean for the likes of me, the lobbyist? How do I operate? I think it’s worth pointing out that things are rarely as cozy as those outside the Beltway might imagine. As the old saw goes, “If you want a friend in Washington, then get a dog.” In Washington, what comes first is your job. If that means disappointing a friend, then you’ll disappoint a friend. So the policy wonk will support policies that help his funders. A legislator will support policies that satisfy her constituents here in Washington or back home. The bureaucrat will support policies that will achieve the goals demanded by law. Though a lobbyist’s job is to influence all of these levers, a lobbyist simply can’t overcome the levers’ own imperatives.
Instead, a good lobbyist finds those elements of Washington whose imperatives are in line with their client’s needs. They will introduce a policy to a wonk who will likely support that policy, promote a bill popular with constituents to a legislator, and provide sound management ideas to a civil servant. Though the community initially supportive may be small, a few wonks and bureaucrats can do wonders while majorities are really only necessary for success in Congress and, there—though it may take years—compromise and horse-trading can do the rest.
In the meantime, a stiff drink can tide you over.
Photo provided by Bernard Fulton.