The average citizen labors under the misconception that all lobbyists are corrupt individuals who exert an inordinate amount of influence upon lawmakers and their staff, and that they exist solely to enrich themselves or their clients. While there have been several cases – the most notable in recent times being the Jack Abramoff scandal – whose coverage in the press has reinforced this perception, the fact is that lobbying is an activity enshrined in the Constitution under the first amendment, but with a different name.
"Congress shall make no law....abridging the freedom of speech....or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances."
Lobbying is the term used to describe the petitioning of a lawmaker by a citizen or group, in order to influence that lawmaker’s vote either in favor or against a piece of legislation, or to have them introduce a law that targets a specific problem or purpose. The term “lobbyist” came into vogue in the early nineteenth century and, by some accounts, was probably first used to describe “lobbying-agents” who gathered in the lobby of the New York State Capitol as they attempted to intercept legislators on their way to vote.
As with many other rights bestowed upon citizens in the Constitution, the right to petition the government can best be enjoyed through its exercise. There are thousands of citizen lobbyists who today make wide use of this right and have influenced important legislation and whose efforts have transformed civic life in ways both large and small.
Perhaps the most famous citizen lobbyist is Ralph Nader, erstwhile Presidential candidate and fulltime gadfly. His exploits helped to create a consumer protection movement and an advocacy infrastructure (i.e., Public Interest Research Group) that continues to serve as the template for grassroots lobbying efforts to this day.
John Gardner, founded the group Common Cause in 1970 – which became perhaps the most famous “citizen’s lobby” – after a long career in government. Common Cause counts the following among its many lobbying victories: the enfranchisement of 18 year olds (1971); the Freedom of Information Act (1974/75); and the Help America Vote Act (2001).
From car safety features and access to government information, to the quality of the water we drink and the air we breathe, we all enjoy the work of successful lobbying efforts in our everyday lives, whether or not we know it.
What does a Lobbyist do?
Lobbying, or advocacy, involves much more than persuading legislators. Its principal elements include researching and analyzing legislation or regulatory proposals; monitoring and reporting on developments; attending congressional or regulatory hearings; working with coalitions interested in the same issues; and then educating not only government officials but all interested parties as to the implications of various changes. What most lay people regard as lobbying – the actual communication with government officials – represents the smallest portion of a lobbyist's time; a far greater proportion is devoted to the other aspects of research, preparation, and communication.
A good advocate figures out how to sway an elected official to vote on legislation in a way that favors the interest the official represents. Advocates educate and inform members of the state legislature or Congress on issues that will come before them for a vote. Politicians are typically intelligent people who must be able to process information very quickly on a constant basis. It is virtually impossible, however, for them to comprehend every issue their constituents might be interested in. For this reason they employ a staff to help them run their office and digest the myriad pieces of information presented to them.
Members of Congress each employ an average of 47-56 staff people; state legislators nationwide employ an average of slightly more than 4 people, with the notable exception of New York State which has 4,000 staff, or an average of 19 for each of its 211 members – the highest of any state legislature in the country.
Even a dedicated staff will need assistance to interpret some of the more nuanced issues their constituents face: enter the professional advocate – or, in your case, the citizen lobbyist.
How the Legislative Process Works
If you want to know how to influence a member of Congress’ decision-making, it is critical for you to get to know how his or her office is structured. If you know who does what, it will be enormously instructive when you begin to communicate with your particular representative. The following is a break-down of congressional staff roles.
(Many of these positions have state legislative counterparts.)
Chief of Staff/Administrative Assistant
- Supervises all aspects of the Member’s office.
- Reports directly to the Member of Congress.
- Supervises legislative staff.
- Monitors legislative schedule.
- Makes recommendations to the Member on legislative issues.
- Keeps the Member updated on all legislative matters.
- Focus on specific issues such as women’s issues, or appropriations.
- Meet with constituents when Member is not available.
- Are experienced in issues and workings of Capitol Hill.
- Creates and maintains the schedule for the Member of Congress. (You should ask to speak with the scheduler when calling to make an appointment with your representatives.)
- Makes travel arrangements.
- Takes requests for speaking engagements, etc.
Press Secretary/Communications Director
- Maintains communication between the Member, his/her constituency and the general public.
- Promotes the views and position of the Member on various issues.
- Respond to constituent requests, which often include contacting government agencies on the constituent’s behalf (e.g. Social Security, Medicare, etc.)
- Most caseworkers are located in district/state offices.
Understanding How a Bill Becomes Federal Law
Origins of Legislation
Suggestions for legislation can come from anyone, i.e. lawmakers, interest groups, constituents. However, legislation can only be officially introduced by a Member of Congress. The Member who introduces the bill is known as the chief sponsor (author) of the bill.
Once a bill is introduced, it is assigned a number and referred to a specific committee. A subcommittee may consider the bill before any action is taken by the full committee. Committees “mark up” or make changes to the bill, hold public hearings allowing testimony for or against the bill, and are responsible for deciding whether to “report” or “not report” a bill to the House or Senate floor. Bills not reported to the floor die in committee with no further action taken. Bills reported to the floor are considered for floor action.
Once a bill is reported from committee, it moves to the floor of the respective chamber, either House or Senate. At this time rules and restrictions are placed on the bill limiting the time of debate, including what types and how many amendments may be added to the bill. The Members then debate the bill and take a vote. If the bill passes one chamber, it then moves to the next. Once a bill passes through one chamber, it undergoes a similar process in the other chamber.
If there is a substantial difference between the bills passed by each chamber, then a conference committee is convened to resolve the differences. The conference committee is composed of Members from each chamber. Once the committee produces a final bill, known as a “conference report,” the bill is then sent back to both chambers to be voted on again. Once the bill leaves the conference committee to be voted on by each chamber, it cannot be amended or changed. If both chambers approve the bill, it is sent to the President.
When Congress sends a bill to the President, the bill will either wither, be signed, or vetoed. If the bill is signed, it becomes law. If the bill is vetoed, it goes back to Congress for a vote. A two-thirds majority vote is required to override a presidential veto and enact a bill into law.
Some Questions and Answers; Some Questions for You to Answer
- Who is the resident expert? Since we are talking specifically about housing, it is important for you to find out who the housing liaison is in a particular Member’s office.
- How should you communicate your message? Letters are very effective, but because of Congressional mail protocols – think anthrax scare of 2001 – letters take longer to reach Members. (This is not the case, of course, for state legislators.) Facsimiles transmittals and email are much more efficient in some cases.
- Where should I visit my representative; district office or Capitol office? This question goes to the timing of your particular campaign. When Members are in session, their appointments can often stack up like planes at Reagan National Airport. There are advantages and disadvantages to meeting in either location. Circumstances, your familiarity with the Member’s patterns, or certain information about their schedule gleaned from a helpful secretary or a newspaper article might give you just the edge you need to make the right decision.
- How do I get results? Lay the groundwork with the staff at first; build consensus with them, and work your way gradually to the principal. Nobody likes to do the dirty work, but everybody wants the results: fact is you can’t get one without the other.
- What do I say to make them listen to me? Learn to make the appeal resonate with them; bring it back to them “where they live.” If they cannot make the connection between what you want and what that means to their constituents – even their families and loved ones – then you will have great difficulty getting them to listen.
Politics is often compared to horse trading: just because you checked the mare’s teeth doesn’t mean she won’t wake up lame tomorrow. The fact is that politics are often played out against a complex backdrop, filled with what for you may be unknowable facts. The Member you see today and plead your case before could have made a deal against your interest months before your meeting. However, the time you invest in your due diligence might pay off in a way you cannot immediately foresee. Maybe it’s figuring out when a daughter has a basketball game, or a son is graduating from college that will give you the edge you need to be successful. It might be cliché, but knowledge really is power.
1. Ralph Nader presents A Citizens’ Guide to Lobbying, by Marc Caplan, Dembner Books, 1983
2. Lawmaking and the Legislative Process; Committees, Connections, and Compromises, by Tommy Neal, National Conference of State Legislators, Oryx Press, 1996
“For an outstanding web site that makes federal legislative information freely and easily available to the public, go to ThomasLOC.gov. This is the cyber place to go to track federal bills, resolutions, committee reports or even to take a virtual tour of the US Capital; a must before you make your first visit to DC to advocate for affordable housing.”