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Lobbying the Legislature

April 7, 2018

 

My good friend, the Late Dick Manley, former President of the Massachusetts Taxpayers Foundation used to teach a weekend class in Lobbying at the McCormack Institute at the University of Massachusetts-Boston. This is taken from my lecture to students in the Masters Program on Public Policy, edited for a more general audience.

 

Thanks for the opportunity to talk to you today. I'd like to talk to you about lobbying and the legislature. Lobbying is an integral part of the culture of government. It is necessary at times for people to hire an advocate to represent their views or it may be that an individual may become an advocate for a group of people or interests. They are very much a part of Beacon Hill and that is important. Beacon Hill is an interesting place. There are 160 members of the House and 40 members of the Senate. Our single common denominator is our ability to get elected. There is no other requirement. Then we get to make laws that impact people, businesses and life in the Commonwealth. That is a daunting task. Each year, there are 8-10,000 bills that are filed with the legislature. Individual legislators cannot know every one of these bills or the subject matter contained therein. There are times, actually, most of the time, when they can use some help and expertise

 

It's not just that there is more activity on the hill, but issues are getting more complex. Pension plans have more options. Medicaid and health plans are no longer BlueCross/Blue Shield, but also HMO's, PPO's, PPA's, cafeteria plans etc. Economic development is not just about streamlining regulations; but tax increment financing. blended    loan pools. stacked tax credits .... well, I think that you get the picture. In the past five years alone, I have been involved with consolidation plans to cut $600 million out of the state budget, enact a worker's compensation plan that has given us our first decrease in rates in 23 years, and wrote legislation that took our unemployment system from bankruptcy to solvency and saved businesses over one half billion dollars over the past three years. After six years of advocacy, a bill that I sponsored on economic development was signed into law and gave us the first business incentive package that anyone can remember. . All these issues took time and tremendous effort by all interested parties. All took months of hearings, meetings, and debate. They all went through several committees in both branches in the legislature. For all the talk and criticism of the legislature for time, or lack of time that we spend in formal sessions, most of the work on bills such as these is done with meetings and in committees prior to the bills ever reaching the floor of either chamber. If an interested party is impacted or affected by passage of legislation, then you must be involved in the decision-making process. You must be involved in the creation,
deliberation, and passage of legislation that affects you.

Again, let me stress that each member of the legislature becomes familiar with the issues that are before their committees, but with so many bills before them, they can’t be familiar with all the different subjects, no matter how hard they work. Since they can't be experts in all fields, they rely on constituents and people with expertise or interest for feedback. they rely upon research staff and fellow legislators; and they rely upon lobbyists and advocates. Now lobbyists are not just high powered law firms or big business advocates, or men in three piece suits stalking the State  House, but they are representatives of people that we all see in everyday life ... our pharmacist, grocer, teachers, gas station owners, and small business owners, Almost everyone these days has an interest in what government is doing, and with telecommunication today, everyone should be informed as to how their interests are impacted by governmental actions. This has lead a proliferation of lobbying at both the state and federal level. I think that this is good. If issues everyone is impacted by is being deliberated or considered, everyone should have a seat at the table as decisions are being made.

This is extremely important. Remember, decision makers are only as good as the information that they have on hand. Even the most dedicated are only as good as the information they have and process and no matter how much info they have, chances are that the people involved in the subject matter covered by any proposed legislation will know that area far better than anyone in the legislature. In other words, you know your business and its intricacies far better than they know or will know as they deliberate.

Given this proliferation of lobbyists, how can you best state your case?

Massachusetts human service lobbyist Judy Meredith wrote a book that I would recommend. It's titled "Lobbying on a Shoestring." In this book, she has two general rules for lobbying:

 

                    1. Lobbying is getting the right information to the right people at the right time.

                    2. Elected officials make different decisions when watched by the affected constituency.

 

These two rules are important because they describe the process well. With increasingly competing interests, timing and information are everything. And letting legislators know that you are watching is very important.

There are some simple guidelines to follow when lobbying. They're my ten commandments of lobbying, if you will.

 

First and foremost is to stay engaged.

You can't come into an issue at the last minute and expect to be heard. You must become a part of the process. Remember, a lot of the work on legislation is prior to its arrival on the floor for debate. We have all witnessed a bill coming to the floor and it seems to pass with little debate or deliberation. That is because parties may have worked on this in committee and informal meetings for months prior and had hashed out an agreement.

 

Second, Honesty is the Best Policy.

There are no exceptions to this rule. Regardless of whatever else they stand for or believe, as legislators, their word is their stock in trade and one does not get many chances to stay around if they are not true to their word.
The legislature runs on trust and if they can’t trust some one's word, they stop listening. If they don't listen, you don't have a say.

Third. Follow through.

Follow through is extremely important. Like Santa, make a list and check it twice. Legislators and decision makers are very busy on many different projects and issues at any given time. Things can fall through the cracks if you don't stay on top of your concerns and issues. The best way to describe this is a conversation that I had with late Dick Manley, former head of the Mass. Taxpayers Foundation. I assured him that if a certain legislator had given him his word, that the

 

issue in question would be taken care of. Dick told me that it wasn't the legislators word that he was worried about, it was his memory! Always follow through!

Four. Do your Homework.

 Advance planning is critical. Nothing is worse than going into a meeting unprepared. Bear in mind that you are competing for a decision maker’s time. Their time is precious, and your time is expensive. In meeting with legislators. indicate your sensitivity over the issues at hand and over the tough decisions that need to be made. Empathize with them. Educate them.

By the way. with the changes in business these days, consensus on a number of issues is being achieved from the bottom up ... the pyramid method. While access to legislative leaders is important, it is no longer possible to deal just with leadership, but is equally important to deal with rank and file members. Again, build consensus. Find allies

Five. In meeting with legislators, use humor whenever possible.

It is tough to say no when you have a smile on your face. I know. It's taken me years to master it. That being said, don't try to build your case on humor. Be factual and not emotional. Anecdotal data is not very good in that regard. Days later the emotion may be gone, and factual arguments are needed to justify a vote on your interests.

Six. Give legislators written material.

I personally believe in being thorough. Again, don’t assume that people know your business. You need to educate and give them supporting documents. Be thorough, but also use common sense. Please know however, that there is a fine line between being thorough and being a pain in the derriere.

Seven. Mobilize your Base.

Find the affected constituency and have them help you in your efforts. Develop allies and coalition build. Are there others with your perspective?

 

Eight Assess your opposition.

Anticipate their moves, their arguments, and work to counter them. In your meetings present both sides of the issue. Tell why your position is better and what the flaws are in the opposition’s position. If there were only one side to an issue, you wouldn't need legislators or lobbyists.

 

Nine. Use the media, but don't overuse the media.

Decision makers like to be presented with options. But they don't like to be pressured into a decision or be lectured to. The media can be used to focus attention on your perspective. build consensus for your position. and find support for your viewpoint.

 

Ten. Lastly, the best kind of lobbying is, in almost all cases, local.

Tip O'Neill was right, all politics is local! You must tell a story that connects with the elected official. Regardless of what you hear about lobbyists and influence peddling, keep in mind that no elected official really cares about any constituency more than those voters in their own district. Without them, that official cannot be re-elected: If a legislator knows that his constituents care about an issue; he or she will care. The legendary English Prime Minister Benjamin Disraeli once said, "I must follow my people, am I not their leader?" Without being too cynical, I believe that this says a lot about the process.

When decision makers receive phone calls on issues, you want them to put faces to legislation ... personalize the bill if you will and understand how it impacts local districts and constituents.
As an example, when the Legislature revamped the unemployment system, the bill converted to a different system for determination of qualifications for benefits. This changed looked good on paper, but in reality, this caused problems for some people in the work force depending on their work patterns. Calls from constituents helped to plug real people into deliberations as to deal with unemployment benefits.

Those are my top ten rules for lobbying. I would like to briefly touch on something that is missing from these rules. There has been much that is written about influence peddling, junkets, and coziness between lobbyists and legislators. I can tell you that no one will change their vote based on a meal or tickets to a ball game from some lobbyist. I was a Chair of one of the most influential committees in the House. We have been involved in every major business and economic decision made in the Commonwealth for many years. Never once has a decision been made based on a campaign contribution. That is not done because legislators have a responsibility to our own constituents and ultimately, to ourselves. While they rely on information given by all parties including lobbyists, these decision makers have a different role than the paid lobbyists and advocates. Lobbyists are paid to represent a certain interest, a certain perspective on an issue. They are not paid to be impartial or fair, they are paid to represent a certain interest. It is the legislature, however, that must be impartial and are the arbiters of what should be the best policy for the people of the Commonwealth. They do not and should not represent a certain perspective: they represent the people.  

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I mentioned "Lobbving on a Shoestring" earlier. You may also be interested in "The Third House" by Alan Rosenthal of the Eagleton Institute of Politics at Rutgers University. There also is a book that someone mentioned to me in the course of giving this type of talk to another group called "The Dance of Legislation.

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