K Street Insider: Lobbying 'A return to basics

Lobbyists all over Washington are scrambling. Year End Lobbying Reports were due this week, and now, lobbyists must “re-learn” the rules of their own game. The recent revisions of the House gift rules and the pendency of the larger package of lobbying and ethics reform measures have left many wondering what K Street will look like as we move forward. In my opinion, this is a time for lobbyists to return to basics.

The truth is that good lobbyists were successful before reform, and good lobbyists will continue to be successful post-reform. The question, of course, is, What makes a good lobbyist? I have the pleasure of serving on the board of directors of the Bryce Harlow Foundation, and Bryce Harlow is one of the best examples of excellence in lobbying that I have encountered in my 30-year lobbying career.

Harlow came to Washington in 1938 and was the first official congressional liaison for the White House. He went on to establish the first Washington corporate government affairs office for Procter & Gamble. He had a distinguished career in government service and corporate representation because he exemplified the five characteristics that he identified as critical to success.

The first characteristic is integrity. Harlow put it this way: “The coin of lobbying, as of politics, is trust. One’s word is one’s bond. Truth-telling and square-dealing are of paramount importance in this profession. If one lies, misrepresents, or even lets a misapprehension stand uncorrected — or if someone cuts corners too slyly — he/she is dead and gone, never to be resurrected, or even mourned.” This observation holds true for individuals and groups, across the board, without exception. Once a lobbyist loses credibility, it is almost certainly lost forever.

The second characteristic is a willingness to work hard. Lobbying is a very competitive system. Advocates on all sides of an issue are simultaneously trying to have their positions accepted. Since most policy issues tend to be very complex, it takes an enormous amount of work to convince policymakers to listen to your case, much less understand it and work toward its adoption. Harlow put it best when he said of lobbying that there is simply “no rest for the weary.”

The third characteristic is adaptability to change. Harlow understood that the subtle, as well as the bold, changes to the rules of the game create a fluid environment that demands equally constant modifications to a lobbying strategy. As he wrote, “No sooner does a ranking official profess to see merit in a company’s position than that official resigns, dies, gets transferred or fired, or is beaten in an election. The whole painstaking process of education and persuasion then has to be started from scratch with the official’s successor.” This phenomenon is even more true today due to factors such as term limits for certain leadership positions and committee and subcommittee chairmanships.

The fourth characteristic is humility and perspective. According to Harlow, “A Washington representative needs to recognize and accept the fact that whatever it is that he/she represents is more important than his/her own personality and atmospherics.” A member’s or staffer’s schedule is extremely demanding, something that is unappreciated by many outside Washington. A good lobbyist must have respect for the people and process. It is not about you as a lobbyist, it is about your case. Another gem from Harlow: “Never confuse yourself with your job. It may be important. You are not.”

The final characteristic is an understanding of the processes of government.

Good lobbyists need to have a firm grasp on the mechanics of government, or as Harlow said, “how the pieces fit together, how things get done.” A good lobbyist simply must take the time to read and comprehend the rules that govern operation of the governmental bodies and to understand the process of how decisions actually get made. Understanding the so-called “decision tree,” as well as the interplay of the various institutions’ rules, is critical to success in advocacy.

Dedication to these principles of good lobbying is important no matter what lobby rules and restrictions are in place at any given time. Maintaining integrity in the system on both an individual and institutional basis is the essential ingredient for the continued legitimacy — real or perceived — of good policymaking.

For a more complete discussion, see the author’s article “Lobbying and Lobby Reform: A Practitioner’s Viewpoint” in Extensions, Fall 2006, at http://www.ou.edu/special/albertctr/extensions/fall2006/jankowsky.pdf.

Joel Jankowsky chairs the Policy and Regulation practice at Akin Gump Strauss Hauer & Feld.