School Nutrition Association February 2015 : Page 16
Welcome to Lobby School BY ROBERT L. GUYER recall giving a lobbying skills training seminar to a group of K-12 public school educators in Wisconsin. Prior to the start of the program, a woman approached me. “Mr. Guyer, I really don’t need your course,” she said. “You see, I teach civics in high school. I already know all this.” I thanked her for her candor, extending my hope that she might get something from the training. Two hours into the seminar, she yelled from the back of the room, “I never taught my kids any of this stuff!” I have no doubt that she knew U.S. civics well and gave her students a thorough grounding in the fundamentals. But when it comes to applying that background in the real world of American politics, most would-be advocates need more. In this article, I hope to take you “behind the curtain” to see what really goes on in the process of making policy. It will be “the rest of the story” that the civics teacher didn’t know and that many books on how laws are written fail to tell—the part of the story that will help you get more of what you want from your government. 16 School Nutrıtıon • FEBRUAR Y 2015 I
Welcome to Lobby School
By Robert L. Guyer
I recall giving a lobbying skills training seminar to a group of K-12 public school educators in Wisconsin. Prior to the start of the program, a woman approached me. “Mr. Guyer, I really don’t need your course,” she said. “You see, I teach civics in high school. I already know all this.” I thanked her for her candor, extending my hope that she might get something from the training. Two hours into the seminar, she yelled from the back of the room, “I never taught my kids any of this stuff!”
I have no doubt that she knew U.S. civics well and gave her students a thorough grounding in the fundamentals. But when it comes to applying that background in the real world of American politics, most would-be advocates need more. In this article, I hope to take you “behind the curtain” to see what really goes on in the process of making policy. It will be “the rest of the story” that the civics teacher didn’t know and that many books on how laws are written fail to tell—the part of the story that will help you get more of what you want from your government.
First, the Fundamentals
At its most basic, government is about applying power. And for all practical purposes, government can do anything it wants to you or for you. With good reason it is said, “Neither liberty nor property is safe when the legislature is in session.”
Government is run by individuals applying power to do whatever it is they want—within the limits of the law. These people include elected officials, legislative staff, staff at executive agencies (including the Departments of Agriculture and Education) and citizens attempting to influence these appliers of power. So you have two broad categories: those who have the power and those who are trying to get the power to go their way. Both groups share a common motivation, articulated well by James Madison, a key architect of the U.S. Constitution and later our fourth president: “Self-interest is the engine of government.”
So, the first thing to understand is that everyone working with government has their own particular goals. Lawmakers and legislative staff have their own goals, as do the president, state governors, agency officials and so on. Groups lobbying government, such as SNA, have their own goals, as well. With so many individual agendas, it’s not surprising that these are often in conflict with each other—and there is little concern about the interest of others, unless you get in their way or threaten their prospects. It’s very much an “every man for himself” environment.
The authors of the U.S. Constitution understood that people who are given power usually have an insatiable desire for more power. To keep any one group from getting too much power with which to dominate everyone else, they created a governing system of three theoretically co-equal branches of government. The legislative branch creates law, the executive branch faithfully “executes” the legislature’s law, and the judiciary branch ensures the former two stay within the bounds of existing law.
In my view, however, the “theoretically co-equal” part largely has broken down over time. The executive branch—including the agencies that work for the president or governor—has evolved to be the dominant branch of government, especially in Washington, D.C. There are many reasons for this breakdown, but I will touch upon just four.
1. Lawmakers have effectively delegated much of their legislative power—that is, the power to pass laws—to the executive branch. Elected lawmakers create broad-brush legislation, which needs a whole lot more detail in order to actually work. That’s where agencies come in, taking the delegated legislative power and making “administrative laws.” In my estimation, lawmakers in the Capitol make only about 10% of the law, while agencies make 90%. So, it’s at the agency level where most laws are created.
2. Legislatures seldom act in opposition to an agency’s recommendation on what the law should be. Agencies are filled with experts who often (but not always) know much better than “citizen lawmakers” how to solve the technical problems associated with making a law work. Few elected lawmakers want to look stupid contradicting what a much-credentialed expert at an agency has to say. For your purposes, the support or opposition of an agency more often than not determines what laws you can expect to get from the legislature—and what the agency will do next.
3. The executive (the state governor or the U.S. president) has direct hands-on control of billions of dollars. The money is supposed to be spent as determined by legislators setting the government’s budget, which is usually proposed to them by the executive (more on that later). The executive also generally controls employees that number in the thousands (at the state level) and even the millions (the federal level). These government employees have broad authority to dictate many details on how you run your daily life. It’s not the chair of the legislative committee that takes away your property, shuts down your business and fines you for noncompliance—it’s the agencies.
4. It’s very rare to defeat an agency’s goal, SNA’s recent achievements (page 22) notwithstanding. First, lawmakers generally won’t contradict their expertise. Also, the executive usually consults with agency staff as to whether to veto or sign a bill that comes from the legislature.
What about the role of the courts? Don’t they restrain the activities of the legislature or executive branch agencies? Courts, like lawmakers, tend to defer to agencies; I recall a conversation with an attorney from the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency who estimated that his agency wins 85% of its court cases. I’d nudge that estimate up to 90% overall.
Thomas Jefferson said, “The execution of laws is more important than the making of them.” My 21st century update would be: “What the legislature giveth, an executive agency can taketh away; and what the legislature wouldn’t give you, an executive agency might.” If you can find supporters for your positions within a government agency, this relationship can considerably enhance your political power. That said, until agencies are authorized to print their own money, elected lawmakers still exercise “the power of the purse.”
They still control an agency’s funding and thereby its lifeblood. So, let’s talk about the legislature—both state legislatures and the U.S. Congress—and how to motivate them to your purposes.
Lawmakers and Staff
We can broadly discuss both state legislatures and the U.S. Congress in one breath, because the U.S. Constitution establishes a common framework for both. There are two big differences between them:
■ Congress spends money it doesn’t have, while states generally live within their means. This translates into Congress being able to do more for you and states not being able to do as much.
■ States generally have shorter legislative sessions, so lawmakers must accomplish a lot in a short time. In Washington, “next year” seems generally soon enough. You can get things done faster at the state level, but you can’t get as much as you can at the federal level.
At both levels, 80% to 90% of the elected lawmakers are not worth a significent amout of your advocacy time. This is because 80% to 90% of them will never vote on your bill or appropriation, except as instructed by party leadership. The few that matter most to you—that is, the ones who will actually vote on your bill—are those who serve on the committees and subcommittees that will consider your bill. Committees are found in all legislatures. In general, sub-committees are more common in Congress than in state legislatures, but they are just a subset of the full committee and are charged with specializing in particular issues.
What motivates these 10% to 20% of lawmakers who do matter most? First, consider what’s on their plates: up to 15,000 bills introduced per session! They simply can’t be experts on—or even understand—them all. If there is anything you get out of this article, let it be this fundamental understanding of legislative lobbying: “Facts don’t vote.”
The factual foundation of your position has little to nothing to do with getting a lawmaker’s vote. They have neither the time, interest nor expertise to read—much less understand—the bills on which they vote. (Don’t despair if the lawmakers disregard your facts; these are very important to the technical experts at the agency.) So, how do they decide on how to vote on bills they haven’t read, supported by facts they’ve never considered?
Let’s go back to Madison’s rule: “Self-interest is the engine of government.” They vote their own self-interests. How do you cater to a lawmaker’s self-interest—within the bounds of the law? Your job, as an advocate, is to show them that what you want them to do is good for them.
For most proposed bills, a legislator’s staff is as (and in some cases more) important to influence than the lawmaker. Lawmakers trust their staff to advise them on whom to support and how to vote. If staff like you, then you are much more likely to succeed. Make friends with staff.
Remember, getting and keeping power is the driver at work in our governmental system. And neither agencies nor staff put (or keep) a lawmaker in power. Thus, the most powerful influencers of lawmakers are those who do help put (and keep) them in office: their constituents who vote—and the effective special interest groups that help them gain the support of their constituents. SNA is one of thousands of special interests lobbying government.
Your Special Interests
This is where your participation comes into play. You have two important roles: as a constituent of your own elected representatives and as a member of your special interest group. I have worked for big corporations and powerful industry associations, and I can say with great confidence that everything I could offer a lawmaker, every solid argument for my bill, could be nullified by that legislator’s Sunday school teacher, if she opposed me, especially if she represents others in the district. There is no power greater than motivated constituents.
The effective advocate organizes and mobilizes the home folk. This is what SNA and its state affiliates do. And this is what you can do with your colleagues, family, friends, neighbors, allies, vendors and stakeholders in your community.
I recall a bill I was lobbying in Congress on behalf of some of the world’s largest electronics companies. One day, a Senate “hold” was put on our bill, stopping it in its tracks. The hold had been prompted by a short letter from one of the Senator’s constituents, a small company in the state. We lost that bill that year; one small constituent thwarted the goal of some of the world’s largest international companies. Constituency, constituency, constituency—it is the single strongest force in getting a lawmaker’s vote. If you know how to apply it, you get the votes.
The key is getting the constituencies of the right people, those 10% to 20% that have committee power over the progress of your bill. The degree that SNA or a state affiliate can get members and allies in those critical legislative districts or states to be actively engaged in advocacy is the degree that SNA will be able to affect lawmakers.
Add to that your efforts in developing support from the agencies, using solid facts and persuasive arguments. You need to work with the agencies to work with the legislature.
How does your special interest apply its power in motivating lawmakers to support its cause? You and SNA want to help the lawmaker to:
■ stay in office—you add value by helping your lawmaker gain votes. You can do this in a number of ways: writing supportive letters to the editor, helping them get favorable media attention (through, say, a cafeteria visit), giving recognition (such as a “friend of child nutrition” award), raising money, working for their campaigns and so on.
■ succeed in office— lawmakers are achievers and success can be defined by re-elections, plum committee assignments and even higher offices. You can help them succeed by supporting other projects they champion, not just your own.
■ do “the right thing”— there are lawmakers who make some decisions just because he or she believes it’s the right thing to do, even if that decision means risking the next election and even if his or her support means little to the bill’s ultimate outcome. But when a lawmaker can take a stand on doing the right thing, constituents often admire and reward that fortitude. School nutrition certainly offers lawmakers a chance to do the right thing.
Are there other special interests that can help you strengthen your position? Absolutely. SNA has enjoyed great success over the years when it has gone to Congress with the backing of other child nutrition advocates for some or all of its legislative goals. This means that another key aspect of lobbying is to lobby other lobbyists; that is, to build an alliance that has shared goals.
So, when you have a bill you want to push through a legislature, the hierarchy of whom you lobby in order to get the law you want is as follows:
1. Constituents in the legislative district/state
2. Other special interest allies
3. Legislative staff
4. Federal/state agencies
This order of importance may seem counter-intuitive to what you’ve been taught about how government is intended to work. But the reality to keep in mind is the simple fact that most lawmakers will follow the recommendations of the first four groups. Of course, this just gives you the law. You don’t have the result that you want or need until the agency implements the law through the rulemaking process. And SNA has seen its share of “be careful what you ask for” lawmaking in recent years. This is why it’s very important to work closely with the appropriate agencies right from the get-go.
Good News: You Can Do It
Effective advocacy is not “rocket science,” nor does it involve magic. Like running a school nutrition program, it takes some specialized knowledge—and it takes lots of work. To be an effective advocate for yourself, the children you serve and the programs you operate, you must know your government “customers,” what each wants and how to help them get it. You have to know the players, where each ranks in importance to you and what influences each in making decisions. And you must, must, must cultivate constituent support.
Be likeable. Have fun. Make friends. You can do it. SNA’s legislative team will help, but don’t leave it up to them to carry the entire load. You are the constituents, and you have a role to play. Go get what you want. Start today.
Lobby School for YOU!
Are you coming to SNA’s 43rd Legislative Action Conference next month? Don’t miss the opportunity to hear the insightful and pragmatic advice of Robert Guyer in a special pre-conference session scheduled for Saturday, February 28, 2015, 1:00-4:00 p.m. “How to Successfully Lobby Lawmakers and Agencies” will build on the concepts presented in this article, providing you with a “menu” of incentives that are critical in motivating those in government to listen more favorably to your concerns. At the end of this session, you will be more adept at answering: “Why would that official give me his or her support?” Improve your chances of legislative and agency success—at the federal and state level—and help protect the future of school nutrition. (Advance registration and separate fees apply. Visit www.schoolnutrition.org/lac for more details.)
Robert L. Guyer is an accomplished lobbyist who now specializes in training associations, individuals and corporations in the skills they need for effective state government affairs. His “Lobby School” presentations have been a popular offering at SNA’s Legislative Action Conference for several years (see the box above). Visit www.learn-to-lobby.com for a list of seminars and other resources available to your school district or state association. Photography by Photodisc, Wavebreak Media, iStock/jiunlimited.com.
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