<i>Editors’ note: This is the first in a two-part series on lobbyists in Indian country.</i>
WASHINGTON – Everyone agrees that the best lobbyists for tribes are tribal leaders. But they’ve got a full enough plate that tracking the minutiae of legislation through the paths and ambages of Congress is out of the question. For that skill set, many tribes have turned to lobbyists.
Jailbird ex-lobbyist Jack Abramoff has put tribes on notice of what to look for in the worst lobbyists. But what should they look for in the best Indian-issue lobbyists, and what do Capitol Hill insiders look for in a lobbyist hired by tribes?
To find out, Indian Country Today has engaged in a series of conversations with Capitol Hill sources. They agreed to speak frankly only on strict condition of anonymity. The article below summarizes what they had to say. ICT has modified their views only to the extent of excluding, for obvious reasons, any mention of ICT employees, as well as (due to limits on space) any mention of lobbyists not based in or around Washington. This discussion of lobbyists is not meant to be exhaustive.
One thing to look for in almost any lobbyist is relationships and contacts – and they should not be limited to staff positions, important as those are, but extend to strategists and decision-makers too.
A second leading trait of the best Indian-issue lobbyists is expressed in something like the following phrase: “If you want to know their political party, you have to ask them.” But in a city where party affiliation is seldom left to guesswork, what the phrase means to indicate is that while party affiliation matters, it’s all a matter of behavior.
Good Indian-issue lobbyists know better than to aggravate one party or the other, Republican or Democrat, for no net gain. No one likes to be criticized all the time, so the better lobbyists put their clients first by respecting a working relationship on Capitol Hill whenever possible. They’re always ready to work “both sides of the aisle,” as they say in Washington, if it will help their clients. And if they have to put the screws to a sometime ally on a particular issue (another talent the best lobbyists have to develop), they try to retain a working relationship on other issues down the road.
In addition, there’s a saying in Washington that it’s a three-party system – Democrats, Republicans and appropriators. Appropriators are the Appropriations Committee members who have immense sway over congressional funding decisions. Counter-intuitively enough, however, given the general importance of party affiliation in Washington, the deeper one gets in the appropriations process – the less party affiliation matters. The difficulty often is getting that deep in the appropriations process. If a lobbyist’s conduct has given heavy offense to the majority party in Congress, which turns out to mean key members of that majority party, their client’s issue may never get there.
As a matter of pushing client issues, lobbyists regularly contribute to the political campaigns of congressional members, or as fund-raisers they direct the contributions of others. But the best lobbyists donate to the members of both parties, knowing their clients will probably need help from both sides of the aisle. If there’s an imbalance in their donating pattern, it is apt to favor the majority party for practical reasons.
All this is no more than to say the successful lobbying tribes decide to look at who’s in power, strategize accordingly, participate in the system, and downplay party labels. Good lobbyists can help and guide them in each department, as well as bringing their knowledge of, and contacts within, Washington’s political system to bear.
Another vital trait in Indian-issue lobbyists is detailed knowledge of every committee of jurisdiction on their issues – and in both chambers, the Senate and the House of Representatives, if possible.
But it’s actually rare to meet anyone on Capitol Hill who knows the workings of both the House and Senate in such detail; they’re separate institutions with separate rules and protocols, and sometimes separate meanings for the same parliamentary language. So a client may have to be satisfied with separate lobbyists in the House and Senate; but the lobbyists should know where bills are headed, and who to approach when they get there, downstream of the main committees of Indian jurisdiction, House Resources and the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.
Other leading traits of the best Indian-issue lobbyists are familiar from other professions. They are not only knowledgeable on the issues, but extremely knowledgeable. They keep their word, their information is good, they’re not out to get something by passing something on and the information they’re given will not be misused. Once a basic trust is established, they’ll cooperate with legislators and staff, and other allies, in just about any way they can to move a client issue forward. They keep their credibility high and their client count low enough that they can be effective for everyone they represent. Above all, they put their clients first.
<i>Continued in part two