Talk­ing with the ‘bo­gey­man’

The Covington News - - EDUCATION - Rep. Doug Holt, R-So­cial Cir­cle, can be reached at 404-656-0152 or Doug@ DougHolt.org.

This week, let’s talk about the folks who are, at least in many minds, the great leg­isla­tive “bo­gey­man” — that is, lob­by­ists! These are the pre­sum­ably dap­per, sil­ver-tongued devils who are pro­tect­ing some­thing we talked about last week — in­ter­est. How in­sid­i­ously un-Amer­i­can!! …Oops! I quickly re­al­ized that if we truly be­lieve in free­dom of speech, then ev­ery­one has a right to pro­tect their in­ter­ests by pe­ti­tion­ing their govern­ment and that do­ing so is Amer­ica’s real na­tional pas­time.

Now, when we say the word “lob­by­ist,” the im­age that leaps to mind is that of the pro­fes­sional or cor­po­rate lob­by­ist. And if they were the only ones hov­er­ing around a leg­is­la­ture, that would be sig­nif­i­cantly un­fair. How­ever, as with dogs, lob­by­ists come in an amaz­ing va­ri­ety of types, back­grounds and styles ( OK, maybe I’m be­ing un­fair to dogs). Though the cor­po­rate faces tend to be more con­sis­tent and pol­ished, many are the days when the folks rep­re­sent­ing the non­prof­its, lo­cal gov­ern­ments, unions, mem­ber­ship or­ga­ni­za­tions, cit­i­zens groups, this, that and sev­eral oth­ers (to in­clude the watch­dog groups keep­ing an eye on the cor­po­ra­tions and trade as­so­ci­a­tions) well out­num­ber the cor­po­rate types. It can be crazy, but I do find it re­as­sur­ing to see op­po­si­tion in the world of lob­by­ing. Com­pe­ti­tion in the mar­ket­place of ideas is just as valu­able as com­pe­ti­tion in the mar­ket­place for goods and ser­vices.

But I di­gress. I re­al­ize a great deal has been writ­ten about lob­by­ists, what they do, how they do it and whether these things are eth­i­cal or not. I doubt I have any­thing new to add to that dis­cus­sion. So in­stead, I’ll ask you to put on some leg­is­la­tor shoes, and join me in see­ing what it’s like to be “lob­bied.”

I’m sure it’s no sur­prise to learn that leg­is­la­tors are get­ting lob­bied even be­fore they’re sworn into of­fice. Since the Gen­eral As­sem­bly al­lows pre-fil­ing of bills be­fore a leg­isla­tive ses­sion be­gins, com­ments on them can be rolling in not long af­ter elec­tion day. This be­ing the 21st century, the vast ma­jor­ity of what you re­ceive is via email. The style is any­thing goes: from friendly, to re­spect­ful, to ca­jol­ing, to plead­ing, to ag­gres­sive, to hos­tile and fi­nally to threat­en­ing. Your people skills are im­me­di­ately put to the test.

Once you’ve been sworn in and the leg­isla­tive ses­sion has be­gun, then the in­per­son stuff in the “halls of power” kicks in. Folks will drop in at your of­fice, make ap­point­ments, catch you while you’re walk­ing some­where, pull you aside be­fore and af­ter com­mit­tee meet­ings, ask to take you to lunch or din­ner, send notes in with a page while you’re on the House floor ask­ing you to step out, and any other way they can get a hold of you. If you like lots of at­ten­tion, this is nir­vana! If you’re not so keen on it, your abil­ity to re­main po­lite gets a work­out…

When they cor­ner you, the pitch you re­ceive can be ra­tio­nal, emo­tional or both. Pri­vate cit­i­zens more of­ten go for the emo­tional vein, and the pro­fes­sional lob­by­ists more of­ten try to build a log­i­cal case. But even with log­i­cal ar­gu­ments, you quickly re­al­ize that you can be snook­ered by crafty use of per­spec­tive and con­text! Don’t give your word, yea or nay, un­less you’re sure of where you stand.

Harken­ing back to the topic of in­ter­est, you’ll soon ex­pe­ri­ence an­other time-hon­ored tac­tic, where the per­son lob­by­ing you will equate the in­ter­est of the group they are ad­vo­cat­ing for with the broad pub­lic in­ter­est. It’s wise to be non­com­mit­tal in re­sponse, be­cause it can be dan­ger­ous to do other­wise. When the pro­fes­sion­als lobby you this way, it’s sim­ply be­cause they are adept enough to deliver the mes­sage as a rhetor­i­cal tool — if they think they need to (the client might be stand­ing right next to them). You can safely let this go in one ear and out the other. How­ever, when you re­ceive this pitch from some­one who is ac­tu­ally a mem­ber of the in­ter­est group, bite your tongue. I think it’s a uni­ver­sal truth that people in­evitably hold what­ever it is that puts bread on their ta­ble as a foun­da­tion brick of truth, jus­tice and the Amer­i­can way.

By now, I’m sure the ques­tion of lob­by­ing and lies has raised its ugly head. As a leg­is­la­tor, you get told a lot of eye-open­ing things, and some­times you feel your abil­ity to read people is sorely pressed. When deal­ing with the pro­fes­sional lob­by­ists, how­ever, there is an­other uni­ver­sal truth work­ing in your fa­vor. Leg­is­la­tors call it the “you get to lie once” rule. As the name sug­gests, word-of-mouth, kicked off by an an­gry leg­is­la­tor, would quickly de­stroy the ca­reer of any lob­by­ist who gets caught pulling the wool over some­one’s eyes. I’ve not seen it un­leashed dur­ing my ten­ure, but it does get dis­cussed.

Fi­nally, an­other tip about the pro­fes­sional lob­by­ists. As I men­tioned, they are gen­er­ally more pol­ished (who on earth would pay to be rep­re­sented by some­one who isn’t?). In fact, the very best among them are prob­a­bly some of the most im­pres­sively well-rounded people ever to set foot in the cap­ti­tal. These folks are at­tor­neys with steel trap minds, ter­rific people skills and the abil­ity to speak elo­quently in al­most any cir­cum­stance. They are so in­tel­lec­tu­ally dex­ter­ous that they will gladly tell you the ar­gu­ments of their op­po­nents, and then just as eas­ily dis­as­sem­ble them, with bru­tal ef­fi­ciency, for your ed­i­fi­ca­tion. Many of us hum­ble, grin­ning, back­slap­ping po­lit­i­cal types can seem like Ne­an­derthals in com­par­i­son. But just re­mem­ber this: we Ne­an­derthals tend to be re­flex­ively on guard around such su­per­hu­mans. You don’t get elected with­out that in­stinct.

Next week I’ll in­tro­duce you to leg­isla­tive gam­bits.

DOUG HOLT

COLUM­NIST

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