What Does a Lobbyist Do?

There are two types of lobbyists, what I call “association” lobbyists and “contract” lobbyists.  There are also citizen advocates who are best understood as association lobbyists.  I hold the term “advocate,” as opposed to “lobbyist,” for those who seek to influence governmental decision making without getting paid.  This marks the professional counterpart, those who advocate for pay, as lobbyists.

An association lobbyist is a person who represents their employer.  Whether a small not-for-profit or big corporation, the association lobbyist is an in-house person whose sole client is the person who signs their paycheck.

A contract lobbyist is a lobbyist for hire.  They typically work for a firm and represent more than one client, usually for a set period of time or even for a specific measure.  They are advocacy mercenaries, the independent contractors of influence.  Regardless of the image this may conjure most operate ethically and will reject representing issues they find objectionable, or that may pose conflicts of interest.

While the first amendment protects the right to petition the government (lobby), it does nothing to make it easy.  Last year the U.S. federal government spend more than $3.7 trillion.  There are regularly more than 15,000 pieces of legislation before the New York State legislature.  There are a quarter million pages of federal regulation, to say nothing of state, county, or municipal regulations.  The point is that government is big.  Just like Lewis and Clark needed a guide to find their way across the continent, interacting with the government is best done with a navigator.

This is from the point of view of the client.  From the perspective of the elected official and their staff, lobbyists are essential resources.

A politician may have had a career before gaining office.  They may have been a businessman, scientist, soldier, farmer, doctor, lawyer, teacher, or firefighter.  If they are an expert in anything, it is – at best – the one field they professionally mastered.  Yet every one of them votes on every bill, from criminal justice to telecommunications to biofuel production.  They can not possibly know much about all the issues they are asked to decide.  Naturally, they rely on experts.  A politician will seek information and analysis from a lobbyist, the wise lawmakers will seek the counsel of more than one lobbyist then use their own judgement to weigh the arguments.

For the client, lobbyists perform four basic services.  Each is an advocate, a concierge, a representative, and reconnaissance.

Advocate – A lobbyist promotes or protects interests.  This could mean defending against a new and harmful regulation, or seeking support for a new law.  A lobbyist delves into the minutiae and finds a way to advance the goals of his or her team  They sell an idea, or warn against a bad one.  Lobbyists are vocational debaters and persuaders, in this way their job is not wholly dissimilar to marketing or public relations.

Concierge – In our enormous government, sometimes you need something.  Perhaps you need to talk to someone who can explain a procedure, or expedite some paperwork.  A lobbyist provides concierge services by connecting his client as efficiently as possible with the right person.  When you arrive at the hotel you may ask the front desk what time the local tourist location closes, or to recommend a good restaurant in walking distance.  A concierge is the person who connects you to the information you want.  Lobbyists do the same thing.

Representative – A lobbyist operates before the government because the client can not be there.  Everyone has their own concerns, but not the time or ability to press them.  The lobbyist stands in your stead.  Lobbyists provide expert testimony, and sit in meetings.  They can inform the lawmaker what it would mean to X if the government did Y.  It is their job to be available and knowledgeable.

Reconnaissance – The sheer magnitude of the government make it very difficult to merely follow all its machinations.  It is hard to advance a goal if you can not see opportunties coming, and it is more difficult to defend a position if you never see the attack coming.  A critical role of the lobbyist is to be the scout reporting on the geography, climate, and rumblings of the government.

Speaking generally, the association lobbyist is a better representative than a contract lobbyist.  For the same reason, the in-house lobbyist is usually a better advocate for the client.  After all, the association lobbyist lives the issues of the client every day, they bring more depth, more knowledge and often more passion to the issues.

Alternately, the contract lobbyist provides much better concierge services and recon.  They are creatures of the capital and have long-standing relations that, for a variety of reasons, the association lobbyist can not match.

In short, the association lobbyist knows the subject matter best and the contract lobbyist knows the audience best.  The relationship between the lobbyist and the lawmaker is the pervasive subtext to the whole field.   As anyone knows, relationships can be fluid and fragile things.  So, it is there that money injects itself into the process.  The role of money is best left for another post.


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