Greatest is relative and suggests no further improvement is possible. I recently spoke to our next great generation with a hat-tip to Tom Brokaw’s moniker of what was indeed a Great Generation. I was invited to address students in the Masters of Applied American Politics and Policy (MAAPP) course at Florida State University to discuss federal lobbying. I was mentally prepared to assume a defensive posture on the merits of lobbying. I’m always happy to explain my work and where it fits. However, I encountered open minds and some terrific questions about lobbying and how I approach the work. There was no discussion of winners and losers or left versus right, just a desire to be more informed about the practicalities of how government works—offered below in no particular order.
Q – How do you decide who comes with you to brief Congress?
A – When I am working on an issue where I don’t have sufficient technical knowledge personally, I want a technical expert in the room. Sometimes that’s a company president or senior executive, but it doesn’t have to be a top boss. I want someone with me who can explain to people in the room who don’t work on the particular issue daily, in plain English. Members of Congress and their staff deal with dozens of issues per day and can’t be experts in all of them. I want them to gain sufficient understanding within a few minutes to make an informed decision.
Q – Why do companies come to you for support?
A – Companies are attempting to do one of three things: (1) protect funding for a program of record, (2) gain funding for a future or emerging program of record, or (3) seek help with a policy issue that is impeding funding or grounded in incorrect facts.
Q – You said lobbying with good information had taken the place of earmarks for allowing the system to work. Can you expand on that?
A – Lobbying is fundamentally about educating and sharing the most current information on an issue. Facts can carry the day and influence outcomes. There was a time when earmarks – the ability to direct spending to a specific company – allowed Members to find their way to vote for a position in exchange for an earmark. In the absence of earmarks, quality and credible information conveyed by a lobbyist on behalf of a client can carry the day.
Q – How can somebody get experience with lobbying when they don’t have prior experience?
A – Unfortunately, there are no shortcuts to gaining experience. Government service is no exception. It can take time to learn the who, when, and where of the process for a company to properly align with the government. It is often much more efficient to hire out for lobbying counsel and service.
Q – Do you change your message when communicating with Republicans versus Democrats?
A – No. Attempting to put a partisan spin on facts can become quicksand during a Congressional briefing. Telling the story and using the same facts with Congressional audiences is critical. It not only reinforces the credibility of one’s story or issue, it allows staff to subsequently communicate with one another from the same set of facts. Any inconsistency of facts would impede progress.
Q – Do companies who use congressional support still have to compete for a contract?
A – Yes. Garnering support in Congress for a program or issue does not guarantee a contract outcome. A company seeking congressional support must be prepared to compete for the ultimate contract opportunity. That said, congressional support can often set favorable conditions for a request for proposal and satisfaction of a funded requirement. Scholarly research proves those companies that engage in lobbying experience more favorable contract outcomes and are more resilient in the aftermath of an exogenous shock to the system, e.g., sequester in 2011.
Q – Do you work with congressional staff or with the members of Congress?
A – Most often, I interact directly with Congressional staff. Offices and committees hire experts for their staff to deal with the myriad issues of government. A Member of Congress will nearly always have a staffer with responsibility for the portfolio of interest and will rely on the expertise of that staffer in evaluating an industry request.
Q – How do you know which member offices to communicate with?
A – The reasons vary. On one level, there may be a constituent interest, such as a facility in a state or district. A Member may sit on a particular committee or be known to support particular types of issues. Finally, a member may participate in a congressional caucus that allows them to participate in an issue they have an interest in, but might not sit on a relevant committee. The engagement plan for each company will be slightly different depending on these variables.
Q – What if I don’t have a relationship with a member of a committee of interest?
A – Learning who might be helpful or receptive to an audience is a vital part of lobbying. It’s a critical aspect of understanding the overall congressional environment. This analysis can be a time-consuming process that evolves.
Q – What if my Member of Congress doesn’t vote on issues in my industry? Can they still be helpful to me?
A – Yes. It is possible that, for ideological reasons, your Member always votes against a particular bill. That doesn’t mean they won’t be willing to get something included in a bill they know they will vote against, but that will ultimately pass. The defense bills are filled with these types of issues every year.
Q – Can you make some comparison of lobbying Congress versus lobbying the executive branch?
A – I speak of this often. Companies tend not to recognize that the laws of lobbying cover communications within the executive branch. Congress has specifically identified seniority and frequency of executive branch communications that qualify as lobbying. Failing to report lobbying activity is an activity subject to fines. It’s just not worth failing to report. More broadly, lobbying the executive branch is similar to lobbying Congress in that one has to figure out the who, when, and where of the necessary communications of lobbying.
Q – How many lobbyists are in Washington?
A – Today, there are over 12,000 registered federal lobbyists.
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