One good thing from Abramoff

Let me start by acknowledging that this column may seem a bit self-serving. It probably is. But it also truly reflects changes that will be coming to town in the wake of the DeLay-Abramoff-Cunningham lobbying scandals.

Let me start by acknowledging that this column may seem a bit self-serving. It probably is. But it also truly reflects changes that will be coming to town in the wake of the DeLay-Abramoff-Cunningham lobbying scandals.

As I wrote last week, it is clear that the so-called “culture of corruption” has a lot more impact on the Hill than in the real world. John Boehner’s election sent that message reverberating down K Street.

Old-fashioned one-on-one lobbying, the way arguments and influence have been delivered for years, is no longer going to be enough to carry the day. That doesn’t change the fact that businesses still need to make their collective voices heard. Trade associations aren’t going to close down, and lobbyists won’t be packing their Gucci’s and leaving town. But we may well be seeing some changes in how influencers get heard on the Hill.

A dozen years ago, my firm broke new ground by building a broad-based coalition to support lobbyists for the health-insurance industry in their opposition to the Clinton healthcare reform plan. Harry and Louise were the first to take a public-policy issue directly to the people in a national campaign. They were backed by an intense grassroots effort that flooded the Hill with questions and concerns about the Clinton proposal.

That effort and dozens of others we’ve run since are all founded on a fundamental truth Sen. Everett Dirksen (R-Ill.) uttered over four decades ago. Speaking about the power of grassroots, he said, “When I feel the heat, I see the light.”

I predict we’ll see an upsurge in direct contact with constituents using the Internet, advertising, direct mail and grassroots organization until concerns over lobbying abuses quiet down. That doesn’t mean that lobbyists will be out of the picture, just that they’ll be making greater use of media and organizing campaigns.

When waged as part of a coordinated effort, constituent contact and face-to-face conversations on the Hill make for a powerful lobbying campaign. Smart lobbyists will be advocating that their clients back their Hill activities with these broad-based campaigns.

We’ve seen an example of this in the flurry of ads surrounding the asbestos trust fund over the past few weeks. Both opponents and supporters are running print and broadcast advertising inside the Beltway and in targeted media markets to reach constituents of important House members and Senators.

We have trial lawyers on television with an emotional message from a graveyard, a spot that gets to the heart of the matter. We have businesses favoring the trust fund running print and TV filled with clips from newspapers. Businesses opposing mirror that campaign with nearly identical ads — a strange and confusing strategy on the part of the opposition. Often both sides quote the same newspapers, although their respective arguments may have appeared years apart.

We’ve also seen an article in this newspaper on Tuesday quoting heavily from a memo drafted by controversial consultant Kieran Mahoney of Mercury Public Affairs. Mahoney has never been one to shy away from publicity, but even he must be chafing at seeing advice intended for his client, the Coalition for Asbestos Reform, in the newspaper. Mahoney calls this a “do-or-die” effort and urges his client to do everything required “to defeat the trust fund once and for all.”

“Everything required” includes earned and paid media efforts here in Washington and back home with constituents. In a well-run campaign, it should also include opinion research and ad tests that make certain messages are resonating with the intended audience. (The nearly identical looking news clip ads would probably fail that test.)

But merely adequate campaigns in this first serious skirmish of the season doesn’t mean there won’t be more and better ones to follow. Interest groups still have a need — and a constitutional right — to petition the government. Adding a public, highly transparent and proven arrow to the influencer’s quiver will make a lot of sense to a lot of companies, trade associations and other advocacy groups.

Well-crafted messages delivered through targeted media can, as we and others have proved in the past, cut through the clutter and build grassroots support for a winning campaign. That “heat” will lead legislators to “see the light.”

I predict more such campaigns in the future. It would be disingenuous for the author of this column and the newspaper that publishes it to not express our support for such a trend. It is also nice to know it works.

Goddard is a founding partner of political consultants GC Strategic Advocacy.
E-mail:
bgoddard@thehill.com