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Lobbying in style

WASHINGTON – Lobbying is one of the essential professions. The purpose of the profession is to initiate, change or influence laws and regulations in favor of paying clients.

In our planet’s most deliberative body, the U.S. Congress, lobbyists play a leading role in the ability of the people to petition the government, a constitutional right. Citizens have increasingly accepted the value of a professional class that is paid to carry their petitions. Private businesses did so long ago. Tribes have maintained a lobby in Washington, in one form or another, since the days when tribal delegations in traditional dress posed on the steps of the Capitol.

Lobbyists are also associated with all the ills of the special interest groups they represent, but that’s another story. So is the touchiness of legislators and top officials on the subject of lobbyists; they make and apply the laws, respectively, and tend to discourage any notion that lobbyists can have their way with them.

But with tens of thousands of legislative items – at least that – coming before every two-year Congress, lobbyists are often the difference between some measures that make progress and the great many that do not. They are often among the best-informed people on their topics. They write, or help to write, some of the testimony that appears before Congress. They may advise congressional staff as to the witnesses on their issues. If they’ve come to lobbying from a position on Capitol Hill, they may know the legislative process inside out. They may even write proposed legislation, a perfectly appropriate activity given their often unrivaled knowledge of the subject matter.

But only a member of Congress can introduce legislation and cast a vote on it. And members of Congress are in a better position than anyone else to influence their peers – their fellow members of Congress.

That is why lobbyists hope to influence members. They may work through congressional staff or mutual contacts or personal friendships, or clients or monetary contributions, or communications or grass-roots organizing far from Capitol Hill, but ultimately they hope to have some influence with members of Congress. Many of them become fund raisers, directing contributions to those members most likely to support the desires of their clients. Of course, many lobbyists also feel a personal stake in the issues they promote, and donate accordingly.

When Republican lobbying impresario Jack Abramoff went criminal on the Indian watch, he put the worst features of the lobbying profession front and center. With him in the headlines – not much incentive to look at lobbyists who go another way, from the rare case of sidelining an anti-Indian amendment with a phone call, to the more common practice of not counting time-consuming advisory chats in the tally of “billable hours.”

Post-Abramoff, Indian Country Today has sought out several lengthy interviews with Capitol Hill sources on the subject of Washington lobbying styles, individual Indian-issue lobbyists on the Hill and Washington-based Indian lobbying organizations.

According to these sources, relationships are the key to Capitol Hill when it comes to lobbying. Because attributed comments in cold print run the risk of damaging personal relationships, they agreed to speak frankly only on strict condition of anonymity. ICT has tried to exercise diligence in assessing their statements in light of the public record and the direct personal experience of the reporter.

Here is the first installment of a series drawn from these interviews on lobbying styles in Washington.

<b>Lobbyists and lawyers</b>

Lobbyists are out to change laws and regulations, and the semi-entrepreneurial attitudes they derive from that orientation tend to manifest in a gift for getting them changed. They develop a sense of themselves as strategists for change.

Lawyers know what the laws and regulations are, the reasons they are in place and the costs of transgressing them. The attitudes they derive from their profession tend to play out in a cautious approach. A lock on what the law is may limit their grasp of what it could be.

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These differences seem innocuous enough. But as more and more law firms have purchased lobbying shops as potential profit centers, the clash of cultures has become apparent. Law firms tend to bill by the hour, reasoning that any six minutes’ time of any attorney they employ is a benefit to the client and a profit unit to the firm.

Where lawyers tend to see promised results as a potential liability, lobbyists often prefer to promise results in return for a retainer, a set monthly fee however much or little they work on a client’s account in that month. Their reasoning is that it’s impossible to put an hourly price on a connection-dependent profession, where superior contacts may settle a client’s issue in minutes as opposed to weeks of billable hours. At the extreme, lawyers see lobbyists as promising too much and not reporting back to the bridge properly; lobbyists see lawyers as auxiliary forces, anchors in reality who are mainly good for advising as to what the law will allow.

The clash of cultures has raised the stock of people who can synthesize the skill sets, and they are known as lawyer-lobbyists. Of course, lawyers who don’t lobby may deride those who do as “not real attorneys,” and lobbyists without a law degree may suspect lawyers’ credentials as lobbyists.

But the lawyer-lobbyists are winning out, probably in part due to the edge they have over any lobbyist – attorney/client confidentiality. Quite a few firms around Washington won’t hire a lobbyist who is not also a lawyer, and some that do won’t provide them with a title or pay on par with their law-degreed colleagues.

<b>“Issues people” and politicals</b>

Issues people know the issues inside out. In Indian country, they are the ones who have read and re-read Felix Cohen’s “Handbook of Federal Indian Law,” who know what Arctic communities do for solid waste disposal beyond the honeybucket, who can’t sleep at night for poring over past editions of congressional committee reports. They earn their pay as educators on Capitol Hill or at “think tanks” on “K Street,” as the Washington lobbyist community is informally known. But they may not be as proficient at keeping up personal contacts in the relationship-intensive world of Washington lobbying.

Politicals don’t always know Indian issues well enough to outlast an hour’s conversation with someone who does, but they manage to show up at every fund-raiser and many events. They meet and greet, but above all they show up. They earn their pay by working their connections to navigate the political system for their clients.

Jack Abramoff is an extreme example of the “politicals” – he didn’t know beans about Indian country, but he could work the appropriations committees in Washington. The same is true for an increasing number of Indian-issue lobbyists, though obviously that doesn’t mean they deserve comparison with Abramoff.

The distinctions to be made between lawyers and lobbyists have proved eligible for synthesis by lawyer-lobbyists. But the skill sets – even the very psychology, if we can believe the latest research – of issues people and politicals are more distant from each other, and the people who can bridge that distance effectively are more rare.

<b>Silver-bullet types and exploiters</b>

The last categories of lobbyists are made up of people you’ll probably never meet on the one hand, and people you never want to meet on the other. If your swim is Indian country, the silver-bullet types are not in your swim. They probably never will be unless you begin spending weekends at Camp David.

The exploiters should be easier to avoid after Abramoff. The Senate Committee on Indian Affairs’ report on the scandal can be read as a textbook study of what to avoid in ultra-exploitive lobbyists. Their last refuge is likely to be billable hours, but a crucial distinction is that not every lobbyist who bills by the hour likes it that way. These days it’s often a policy of the law firm, not a decision of the lobbyist. The ones who like it best are going to be billing one client for flight time while billing another for work done in flight, or finding billable ways to send e-mails and make phone calls and hold meetings on issues that have shown no sign of movement or change of status in Congress since the last ineffectual (but still billable!) round of e-mails and phone calls and meetings, or signing up a client on an issue that has to go through a committee of Indian jurisdiction in Congress when they know full well they’ve assailed the committee so aggressively they have near zero chance of getting anything done there.

It bears remembering that connections are the great equalizer in the lobbying profession. All the skill, knowledge and instincts in the world may not match the value of knowing someone well enough to get a return call.