K Street Insider: Good policy makes for effective lobbying

One of the reasons the American Council of Life Insurers (ACLI) has scored some Hill victories in recent years is that it’s hard to neglect the issues of concern to life insurers, such as boosting Americans’ retirement security. Indeed, among domestic issues, retirement security and its many facets has the ability to arrest the attention of many a member of Congress.

And we’ve been able to talk retirement security with congressmen and senators even though — as a state-regulated industry — many will say that Congress has enough on its plate not to worry about our concerns. 

But while good policy translates into effective lobbying, there also are some practices that I have found that serve to advance life insurance-industry arguments on Capitol Hill. Taking a cue from some others who have used this space to offer general advice on lobbying, I’ll provide my developing list of tips that apply especially in the trade-association context:

Practice bipartisanship. I’ve never understood the logic behind a trade association banking heavily on one political party over another. Members of Congress have long memories. Aligning with one party over the other may provide short-term benefits, but if your association plans to stick around like ACLI — which is celebrating its 100th anniversary this year — and win on Capitol Hill, the bipartisan approach represents a “best practice.” The NAACP theme of having no permanent friends or enemies, only permanent issues, should apply to trade-association lobbying. 

Know, and play, by the rules. A deep knowledge of the changing gift and ethics rules is vital to maintaining your good record. To be sure, a strict adherence to both the written and unwritten rules — and the good lobbyists know what those unwritten rules are — will serve you well in the long run.

Bring in your trade-association members and clients. It seems a simple enough maxim for smart lobbying, but many in this business think they have to wait until a crisis develops to bring in their members or clients. An early showing of chief executives could at times be the right way to demonstrate how serious an issue is to a trade association, even if it appears enactment of a bill is far-off.

Make time to talk to staff. Lobbying members of Congress is a given. But never forget the importance of talking to staff. Surprisingly, many trade-association heads only participate in the “big meetings” with congressmen and senators. Educating staff about your issues demonstrates your commitment to an issue over a commitment to ego. It also pays dividends. Members of Congress like and respect their aides, and when courtesy and respect is accorded to a member’s “family,” it rings well with the big boss. Moreover, those “staffers” frequently move up the ladder or stay around Washington a long time. A lot of good will can be built up for your organization with these young people by a top trade-association official who will take the time to explain or discuss his or her industry.

Don’t look at your shoes. Lobbyists acknowledging problems with their respective industries shouldn’t be quiet when the discussion turns to solutions. Whenever I testify before Congress, I attempt to have an answer to the challenge du jour and not wait for one to be imposed on us. 

Lastly, always think about the long term. Trade associations have long lives. One with a well-developed reputation for intelligence and honesty won’t have a hard time opening doors on the Hill.

And with good policy, they might even help get some bills passed.

Frank Keating is the president and chief executive of the American Council of Life Insurers. He served as Oklahoma’s governor from 1995 to 2003.