Lobbyists have work beyond 100 days

As Washington slogs toward the full bloom of spring, the first Democratic Congress in more than a decade is passing the 100-day mark. Leaders of both parties are becoming confident in their new roles, and the branch’s full complexity is beginning to show.

For the lobbying community, the shift is noteworthy. For the last three months, members and their staffs have been boxing out turf. Now both minority and majority have begun to understand the limits of their positions: The time has come for the private sector to mature in relation to this new Congress.

While the market for Democratic representation has been growing, I’ve heard of few examples of dramatic re-tooling of government- relations structures in reaction. But the ability to deliver now is requiring more than punditry as major legislative initiatives begin to move through committee. There is more to lobbying a Democratic majority than dusting off old pictures,; filling a vacancy with a Democrat rather than a Republican; or asking an outside consultant to handicap what may be weighing on a member’s mind.

There are three main areas in which wise government- relations professionals will draw focus as they move from examining the landscape to executing lobbying campaigns: relationships, positioning and language.

To suggest lobbyists should focus on relationships may seem like telling fish they should be concerned with water. But I’m referring to the multiple facets of the relationships and associations lobbyists and their clients take into any engagement.

For example, earlier this year a business coalition was formed to assist in the passage of Trade Promotion Authority — aka fast track. Yet, once the group was formed, legislative decision-makers yawned. Serious doubt was voiced as to the group’s ability to gain a large block of Democratic votes. The critics were right —— the same names that had been unable to bridge differences with Democrats in the minority had been signed up to work the new majority.

I’m not being critical of their professional skills — I worked with many of them as chief of staff to the late Rep. Bob Matsui (D-Calif.). But these professionals now wear the web of relationships they formed during a decade of GOP control. The associations that proved beneficial in a Republican majority can be damaging to the success of any particular point of view in a Democratic majority. It would be naïve to expect that members now in power will fail to recall who was associated with whom while treating their current point of view with complete impartiality. 

For trade lobbyists during GOP control, decisions were made to allow the issue to be transformed into a tactical one, leveraging support or opposition against political benefit and harm. Coalitions ran political ads mid-cycle against wavering members and the “majority of the majority” principle was adopted and held fast. The result was a dramatic loss of bi-partisan support. And while individuals cannot be held responsible for the actions of past coalitions, it is a fool’s errand to re-form those same associations and now hope they will somehow be effective.

The same is true with positioning. The new congressional leadership —— from the Speaker to aspiring subcommittee chairmen — will view outside participants through the prism of what they are bringing to the discussion. I predict that those who approach the Congress offering the same positions in new packaging will find an unreceptive audience.

Democratic lawmakers have struck a note of interest in working with a broader family of participants by inviting viewpoints from all corners of issues. But putting forward positions that were unpersuasive to a Democratic minority will sow even weaker results now. Advocates must go to their policy shops to find new ways of solving problems.

Remember, Democrats believe government has a positive and necessary role to play — one that has been ignored for too long. Industries giving Democrats new ideas that benefit both the public and industry will find themselves well received and sought out. You may not get everything you desire, but you may be surprised.

Once attention has been paid to relationships and positions, language must be addressed. Frank Luntz made a career out of advising the Republican conference on the careful use of language to shape perception. His approach has been boiled down to a shorthand of “sticking to the talking points.” Language refinement may be a “perfecting” exercise, but the importance of language in modern political communication cannot be underestimated.

In the Republican Congress, a lead- issue argument was usually framed in terms of states’ rights in juxtaposition to federal intrusion. Such an argument, even if valid, would be a poor choice in current times.

Other examples of re-framing are plentiful, but the point is made. As the Congress gears up for the next three months, the private sector has much work to do.

Jim Bonham is a principal at the law firm Brown Rudnick representing several Fortune 500 companies and is a former DCCC Democratic Congressional Campaign Committee Executive Director and Chief of Staff to the late Rep. Robert T. Matsui.