16 February 2006

Lobbiest: More Than a Metaphor

I work in the shadow of Colorado's state capitol, and spent the afternoon in its bowels, in and around the hallway (aka the lobby) outside some of the committee rooms there. I hadn't realized, until today, just how literal the term lobbiest was. Lobbiests sit or stand in the lobby outside committee rooms, armed with business cards, 30 second pitches, cell phones, black berries, and small packets of photocopied papers, waiting around for opportunities to speak briefly with legislators and other lobbiests who can aid their cause. An attention grabbing hypothetical, or the pronouncement that a couple of key interest groups have taken a position on a bill, can go a long way.

Pushing and shoving is avoided with the presence of green jacketed sergeants at arms, who are probably the most polite security guards/protocol officers I have ever encountered in my life. They are the gatekeepers, keeping lobbiests out of rooms where they don't belong at appropriate time and carrying requests from lobbiests to confer with legislators on the backs of business cards to legislators in committee meetings.

Inside the committee room, legislators here prepared presentations and ask questions in their hearings, and occassionally, stragglers are rounded up and they all sit at their seats and cast votes. In the lobby, legislators engage in brief, politics conscious, notes free, standing, face to face discussions about pending legislation with lobbiests and each other. Some of it involves technical sessions to impart information. Other times, it involves discussions regarding who does or does not back the bill, not just among legislators, but among pertinent interest groups. The role of credibility in this context is pretty clear. I heard more than one legislator tell a lobbiest this afternoon that "I'm relying on your representation of what this bill says.", as a sort of a warning that there will be hell to pay if this communication turns out to be less than accurate.

The pace is intense. A committee may consider half a dozen or more bills in an afternoon session. Unlike floor action in the U.S. Congress, this is no kabuki theater. At the state level, where staffing is thin and many legislators enter the committee room not fully decided on how they will vote, members of the general assembly are influenced by the hearing testimony, and what the arguments they hear just outside the hearing room doors. A five minute delay in getting a legislator information about a key bill provision or a key interest group's support or lack thereof, can make the difference between a bill's success or failure. When people need turnaround on questions, they need it yesterday.

"Deliberative" is not the best word to describe the process. The rapid fire deal making feels more like being on the floor of the New York Stock Exchange than it does like the academic process the word "deliberative" implies. This isn't to say that deliberation doesn't happen, legislators and lobbiests alike do it, but the real sustained careful policy thinking is mostly something that happens outside the legislature, and must be digested and crystalized before making its way under the capital dome. Occasionally, there are even lengthy discussions of bills, but those take place out of sight, in capital or professional offices, or over a breakfast or lunch meeting (dinner events, which are ubiquitous during the legislative session, tend to have more of the staccatto pace of the hallway outside the committee rooms, than a deliberative character, as they are usually affairs with long guest lists).

They say that legislation is like sausage. The results may be good, but the process of making it is often ugly. I'm not sure that it is that bad. In part because it takes so much less money to run for a seat in the state legislature than it does to run for a higher office, the venality of the process is far less alarming at the state level, than it is at the federal level. State legislators are far more accessible than federal ones, so the club of people with access is far less exclusive. To play, you need a few days to learn the rules of the game, you need a cell phone, a few grass roots supporteers, time on your hands to spend hanging around the capital, some business cards, and something to say. One or two connections to get you started also help. But, the crowd working the hallway is far less elite than one might expect. Ideas and the informal sense lobbiests provide of what people are thinking about the bills before the committee are more important than money, even though money has a role in the system, even at the state level.

The problem with the process is not that lobbiests are not sufficiently forthright about what positions they are taking, or who they are working with in the process, or even that connections obtained in public service are abused in the service of private interests. The problem is that almost everyone but the lobbiests are utterly incapable of following the fast paced action on capital hill and finding an opportune moment in which they can personally provide input into the process. It isn't that this is kept secret. Almost everything the legislature does, right down to live webcasts of committee hearings, is available on the web, votes on every little thing are preserved in black and white for posterity, and reporters for multiple media outlets are never far from the action. But, when you have 100 people working full tilt to generate legislative action, supported by a few hundred staffers, interns, aides and institutional legislative officials, no one person can adequately monitor even a good share of the action without making it a full time job, which few people can afford to do. As a result, those people who know what is going on and are capable of providing relevant information in a timely fashion have greater influence than the rest of us. A 120 day session, compressing a year's work into a third of the time, simply makes matters worse. The most important reform one could offer the average person who wants to participate in the process is not to require more paperwork from lobbiests, but to slow the process down, so that you don't have to be one to get a word in edgewise.


Anonymous said...

Dear Prophet: capital v. capitol

Andrew Oh-Willeke said...

Damn me. One of my perennial spelling flaws.