K Street Insider: The vast, and growing, scope of lobbying

In the 21st century, lobbying is more important than ever before, as more and more people are affected by the government’s decisions. And the definition of lobbying continues to shift and expand as each day passes — it’s not just legislation anymore, it’s research, the legislative monitoring that firms do for financial-services clients, or in the example of Dubai Ports World, the approval of transactions under CIFIUS.

The U.S. federal government is the biggest regulator, taxer and customer in the world. Its actions on grants, contracts, taxes, healthcare, customs duties, subsidies, mergers and acquisitions, licenses, and regulatory requirements have such wide-ranging impact that contemplating the how such actions trickle down to American citizens and businesses or foreign governments is simply mind-boggling.

Government decisions result from dynamic, complex, formal and informal legal and political processes. The intricate interactions between the three branches of government and influence from interest groups, media, constituents, and others resemble a chessboard. But it’s a living chessboard in which the queen has a temper, the rook sometimes refuses to advance in its mandated J-shaped pattern and arguments between pawns occasionally overturn the whole game.

The quality of lobbying or advocacy can make a real difference in the process of allocating funds or shaping legislation. Conducting research, assembling the facts, understanding both substance and procedure, and preparing quality written and oral advocacy — those are the tools. Integrity and credibility with decision-makers are indispensable. Increased recognition of the importance of government decisions and how they are influenced is what has resulted in the widely reported, explosive growth in federal lobbying.

Contrary to the popular stereotype, most lobbyists are not sinister figures. Most came to Washington to perform public service. The vicissitudes of elections, changes in Congress or the administration, family requirements or other matters mean they are, temporarily or permanently, in the private sector.

At our firm, lobbyists include former senators and congressmen, Cabinet members, counsels to House and Senate committees, congressional staff, ambassadors, a governor, attorneys general, and administration officials who worked for departments and dozens of agencies. They are Republicans and Democrats, conservatives, liberals and moderates. What most have in common is a sincere interest in public policy. Many qualify as “wonks,” and our cafeteria discussions are usually spirited and vigorous.

At age 62, I have watched and participated in this process for nearly four decades, through seven presidents, 17 Congresses, several changes of party leadership, and countless turnovers of personalities and issues du jour. Over the years, I think the quality of advocacy and lobbying generally has improved. Education is key to the continuation of that trend, as are developments in technology and communication.

The most serious counter-trend is the skyrocketing growth in the cost of election campaigns. As has been reported and lamented often, election-financing demands result in members and lobbyists being ever more focused on and distracted by fundraising.

Sensationalized media ties between campaign contributions and policy decisions also undermine public confidence in our democracy. It’s a tough and complex problem, the solution to which has been elusive. However, when it is solved, it will be enormously beneficial to members of Congress, lobbyists and public policy as a whole.

Manny Rouvelas is a partner at K&L Gates, and former chairman of Preston Gates Ellis & Rouvelas Meeds.