A lobbyist’s worst enemy: Temper unchecked

After 40 years in Washington, I would like to think I have a reputation for showing leadership and remaining calm during crises. To be an effective lobbyist, grace under pressure is necessary at all times. And yet, human nature being what it is, there are times when I have lost my cool.

Several years ago, I sat in a member’s office being berated. The member was demanding action by the end of the day, and the demand was completely unrealistic. My explanations as to why only made the member angrier. The response that followed was surprising, and reflected the heated tenor of the exchange. “Dan,” the member said, “If you don’t take care of it now, I’ll call all the credit union people in my district and tell them you’re a terrible leader.”

At that point, I had had enough. “You don’t have to wait for me to leave,” I said. “Get them on the phone right NOW, and I’ll even give you their phone numbers … ” The member proceeded to yell quite loudly and vociferously, and I walked out.

When I got back to my office, I received a call of apology, and we both forgot the whole thing. Looking back, however, the “incident” was a gamble on both our parts. We both were putting our credibility and reputations on the line. Ultimately, the member realized that attacking me in the eyes of my membership would not have played well, and would have backfired as an effort. For my part, I was on solid ground, but still risked having this legislator call our association’s members to complain about my leadership. The good news is before and since this incident, we were and remain good friends.

With that said, here are a few simple words about cooling off this summer. And no, I am not referring to the hot weather that has already made its way here and proven yet again that Washington was once a swampland.

By July, many of us are tired. We cannot wait for the August recess to come. Emotions run high as it becomes clear that deadlines are looming and legislation is moving at a snail’s pace.

At the trade-association level, members are making demands and want to see accomplishment. At the congressional level, demands are made on members and staffers, and again, one’s accomplishments (or lack thereof) are called into question.

The lesson to remember is simply this: Keep your emotions in check. There is always another day on Capitol Hill. This is particularly important for those of us on K Street to remember, because we cannot afford to “unload” our emotions, as members of Congress do. If we decide to lose our tempers, whether with congressional members, staffers or our own trade-association members, the cost may be too expensive in the end. Years of access may be gone in seconds. Decades of respect can be forgotten in minutes.

Any issue — if you become too emotionally involved in it — can become fodder for a screaming match. A lobbyist’s responsibility is to constantly ask: “Is this worth it? Am I willing to lose it all? Is time to speak up?”

Lobbying is in some ways like a chess match. The seasoned lobbyist thinks not only of the move he/she is making now, but also the next move and several beyond that. So, as one begins to feel anger building up, calculations should be made: If I make demands now, will those demands be met? If those demands are met, am I preventing myself from a strategic relationship I may need later on? Is this person more important to my long-term strategic advocacy goals?

It sounds so simple, and yet many — and on occasion I include myself as well — forget this basic lesson. (Fortunately, I would like to think that in most instances I have made the right decision, and that has mercifully allowed me to have fulfilling careers as both a member and lobbyist.)

So, as we make it through the rest of this month, look toward vacation, some time to rest and reflect, and try to take a deep breath. There is much work to be done, and we have only just started a new session. Constituents are looking for solutions and for all of us to keep our tempers in check.

Mica is the president & CEO of the Credit Union National Association (CUNA), which represents nearly 8,500 credit unions with more than 90 million members. Rep. Mica (D-Fla.) served in the House from 1979-1989.