Freshmen members of Congress, welcome to Washington. You’ve gone through orientation, been sworn into office, assigned an office, and are busily recruiting eager staffers. Congratulations. What else can you look forward to? Lobbyists … or, more accurately, government relations (GR) professionals.
On the stump you may have pledged never to be beholden to “special interests.” Don’t worry; as a practicing lobbyist and GR professional for 32 years here in Washington, I can assure you we didn’t take it personally. Often a candidate’s solution for making Washington work is to ensure that lobbyists don’t. Over time, however, we hope you will appreciate our information, advice and support. You may never love us, but we hope you’ll learn to like us.
Before you hear the usual clichés, here are a few thoughts about our profession.
First, lobbyists do not represent “special interests.” We represent “common interests.” Our employees and clients are your constituents. We are here to work with you to identify solutions to the many challenges impacting your districts and the people we both represent.
Second, it really is okay to meet with us. We have information you may not have heard, provide valuable perspectives, and can caution you about unintended consequences that inevitably surround every debate. The best lobbyists will be well-informed about their own proposals and the many alternatives. By understanding the positions of all stakeholders, you can make more informed decisions. Quiz us.
Third, it’s okay to tell us “no.” Sometimes our advice may not be compatible with your ideology, your constituents’ needs, or the pressures of leadership when they ask for your vote. Naturally, we prefer “yes” as an answer, but it’s okay to listen and politely say, “I can’t help you.” (For most of us, “no” is just an interim response.) Dialogue helps us better understand each other. Who knows, we may even find a compromise that serves mutual interests. Talk with us.
Fourth, we’re not here to impede the policies you want to promote. There are hundreds of lobbyists who will agree with you. Reach out to them and form your own army when you file that bill. Lobbyists can be your greatest allies. Use us.
Fifth, consider us bureaucratic navigators and legislative trail guides. We can let you know which paths lead to cliffs, how the chairman responded the last time someone introduced your proposal, and which members of Congress likely will be your most ardent supporters (and who might quietly undermine you in markups and meetings.) Ask us.
There are over 50,000 practicing lobbyists and GR professionals nationwide — approximately 20,000 registered lobbyists in Washington and roughly 30,000 in our state capitals. Here are some of the best practices we represent.
The best lobbyist understands the needs of the client and is capable of managing expectations, including how to say “no” when unrealistic demands are made, and redirecting clients to more likely outcomes. Counseling them on the realities of politics is crucial for serving our clients responsibly.
The best lobbyist understands the dynamics of the legislative cycle — when budgets are submitted, hearings are held and markups conducted. Successful legislation comes down to process and players, and we understand both very well.
The best lobbyist understands the competing pressures elected officials face. Policymakers represent many conflicting interests, but try to promote the greater good for their constituents. Knowing these conflicting demands on a member of Congress is vital for “getting to yes.” Our goal is to contribute to policy progress, not an incumbent’s defeat in the next election.
The best lobbyist understands the forgotten art of compromise and will seek a win-win solution first. The difference between accepting and rejecting compromise may be the difference between a fledgling policy paper and a bill signed into law. Former Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) often quoted the Voltaire maxim, “The perfect is the enemy of the good.” Failing to negotiate and, yes, compromise, only leads to gridlock. It’s time for Washington to relearn the value of compromise.
The best lobbyist says “thanks” more often than “please.” Members seldom hear a simple “thank you.” If a policymaker goes to bat on behalf of people we both represent, we will thank you and let your constituents hear how well you represent them.
Finally, the best lobbyists are partners in the process. By helping identify solutions for the common good, and not the limited few, the outcome will serve the needs of our clients and your constituents.
Lobbyists are responsible professionals who work diligently and ethically to protect our reputations and the legislative process. We will do our best to provide you with valuable information, never lie to you, and ask only what we believe is in the public interest. Over time, it’s our hope that you — the freshmen class in 2019 — will see lobbyists and GR pros as trusted resources who serve you honorably and well.
James Hickey is president of the board and founding member of the Government Relations Association (GRA), representing the lobbying, government relations and fundraising communities. He has been a practicing lobbyist and government relations professional for 32 years in Washington. The views expressed here are his own.