Tuesday, June 03, 2014

Lobbying is awesome. You should try it.

I am a lobbyist.

I love it.

It is really the most fun thing I do. It's my hobby. It is really fun.

I want you to try it.

Government and the history of the world....it's a never-ending drama. And when you lobby, you get to be a part of it! You get to shape the future! What a privilege.

When you convince a politician to file a bill, that becomes part of the permanent record. In 100 years, if there are libraries with dusty books, someone can pull out the record of the government's actions in the year you lived and look up and see the bill that got filed because of you. And maybe they will read it and realize that you were on to something and then finally implement it. Or better yet, they'll have enjoyed that great policy for decades and look back and wonder how anyone would have argued against the idea. Or wonder what life must have been like before everyone took that policy for granted. Like the way we take women voting for granted. Or free schools for everyone, no matter how poor they are. Or water that doesn't have any diseases in it. At the time, those were hugely controversial ideas, mocked mercilessly by the establishment as hopelessly romantic and stupid suggestions.

The best feeling is when you convince a politician to vote for an idea. They don't have to. They can say no. But when they say yes....there's nothing better. It's exhilarating. Every time there's a vote on the floor or in committee on a bill I'm working on, even when I know that it is going to pass, I get nervous. I start to breathe harder. My heart pounds. And when it passes, such relief. And when the bills fail – despair! Devastation. But (and this is comforting), it never ends. Bills never really die. We can always come back later that session or next year with a slightly different bill or, perhaps, a different perspective from the politicians.

The progressive movement is all about making our economy and our government work better to improve all of our lives. And to do that, our elected officials need lobbyists to help them implement the thousands of potential improvements to government and navigate as many of them as we can through the legislative process.

Think of each particular improvement to government as a person. It starts out as an idea – just a little baby. That baby needs to grow up and become a full-fledged adult: passed into law, fully implemented and fully funded to be part of our government and society. And a lobbyist is like the parent of that baby who has to help it grow. And then think of us as living in a world where the infant mortality rate is medieval: 95%. Most babies die. Most children die. Only the very strong survive. Well, most bills die. They never become a law. Most good ideas never even get introduced as a bill. They just live as a white paper somewhere, or an op-ed or blog post. Even for those bills that do get passed into law, many laws never get implemented. Or they never get funded. It's a massacre out there!

As it turns out, it is really difficult to pass a bill and implement it. It's very easy to kill a bill. And it's very hard to transform an idea into a bill and then into a law, and then a program, and then into a part of everyday life. That's what lobbyists do – we shield that idea from all the many enemies (including inertia and indifference) and help move it along at every one of the dozens of steps along the way.

This is a sample of the big legislative steps an idea must take to become a law.
  1. Get introduced as a bill. Thus, one of the legislators needs to be convinced to sponsor the bill.
  2. Get assigned to a substantive committee Thus, the legislative leadership must be convinced to assign the bill and not just let it stay unassigned, as many, many bills remain.
  3. Get called for a vote in that committee. Thus, the chair of that committee needs to be convinced to allow the bill to be called for a vote.,
  4. Earn a majority of the votes of the members of that committee.
  5. Get a vote from the full body on the floor of each chamber. The leadership needs to be convinced to call the bill for a vote.
  6. Earn a majority of votes from the members of the full chamber.
  7. Repeat the entire process in the second chamber.
  8. Get the Governor to approve the bill.

Any time the opponents of the bill can stop any one of those steps from happening, they win and the bill is dead. They only need to win once out of the dozen or so steps to pass a bill. We advocates need to win at every single step to pass the bill – we need to go 12 for 12. That is much harder than finding one step along the way to kill a bill (say, recruiting one committee chairman who refuses to call a bill for a committee vote they don't like).

Imagine a state senator. (Maybe it's you one day). She has a great idea. So she files a bill. And she works it. She asks the Senate President to assign the bill to a committee, she asks her colleagues to vote for the bill in that committee, and she asks her colleagues to vote for the bill on the floor of the Senate – and she is successful! That's great.

Now the bill goes to the House. And someone else has to take the bill from there. Our state senator is done. A state representative has to pick up her bill and then he has to go to a House committee and ask his colleagues to vote for the bill, and then go the floor of the House and ask his colleagues to vote for the bill. What if there isn't a state representative who is as passionate about the bill as the state senator? What then? Well, the bill will probably die. Because while the bill is supposed to be moving through the House, our state senator is busy at the exact same time working in the Senate, trying to pass bills through that chamber.

A lobbyist, however, will work with that state representative and remind him that the bill is up in committee, and ask him to ask the chair to call the bill for a vote, and will ask each of the members of the committee if they will vote for the bill, and report back to the state representative that the bill is looking good, and provide talking points and analysis to the state representative about why the bill is such a good idea, and when the opponents try to kill the bill, the lobbyist will counteract each one of the opponents' arguments (or else the state representative, who has lots of other bills to try to pass and lots of other bills before him he needs to weigh in on, so not much time or capacity to develop the arguments and nuances of every bill he supports, is more likely to lose a vote to the opponents). We have to push, fight, amend, beg, cajole, plead, trade, accommodate and adjust along the way to keep bills alive.

And we've got to develop and mobilize a constituency so the legislators will know there really are people who want this thing to happen.

It's hard to pass a bill. The more the bill does, the harder it gets, because it generates more opposition. And it's easy to kill a bill. That's why most bills that pass are small but significant steps, not massive changes, because massive changes pick up too much opposition to survive the treacherous path and become a law.

That's why lobbyists get a bad name. When people try to pass a big change, it's a lobbyist who kills the bill. And most lobbyists are bill killers. I call them assassins. They lie in wait and, on behalf of their clients (usually big businesses or trade associations that represent big businesses) they do their best to kill those bills that would benefit most people at the expense of their client. It's a rare idea that makes life better for everyone – usually, a few people are worse off in the short-term (high-income taxpayers or companies making a lot of money) when progressive improvements happen (like buying affordable college or making insurance companies pay for more medical claims). So the lobbyists for the special interests work very hard to kill any bills that would do that.

On the others side, of course, charging up the hill, pushing against the forces of the status quo, are the lobbyists and legislators trying to make a change. The odds seem impossible. So many bills die. But then again, every year, lots and lots of bills make it. Why can't it be ours?

Guess what – it can be! No one is in charge! Put another way: you're as much in charge as anyone else. You just have to start acting like it. So look at the government, figure out how it works, figure out how to improve it and get to work making it happen. Because it is a blast. An absolute blast.

Lobbying is at the heart of the First Amendment to petition your government for a redress of grievances. It's the highest form of citizenship. And it's what I hope to encourage you to do.

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