I wish the government got a buck every time somebody asked that question. It would pay off the national debt.
I worked for years in a governor`s office in the legislation section, and later as the chief aide to a Majority Floor Leader in a House of Representatives. At one time or another, every lobbyist operating in that area of the country floated through my office. Hundreds of them, in all shapes and sizes, from silk stockings to hair shirts, from Wall Street top guns to Costa Rican bottom feeders.
First, I can honestly say I never met a lobbyist I didn`t like. Being likeable is the sine qua non for a lobbyist. Indeed, an unfriendly lobbyist is a walking oxymoron. Then again, maybe the fact that one of my functions was to supervise bill analysts for committee chairmen may have had something to do with it. The lobbyists feared a thumbs-down recommendation on our part as retribution for real or perceived injustices. Of course, being true professionals, we would never do such a thing, although I must admit the idea crossed my mind once or twice.
As for lobbyists and corruption…
Contrary to popular belief, a great deal of legislation does not involve big money. Amendments to the Juvenile Code are one example, consequently no money accompanies them.
As for the other stuff, well… that´s when legislators` doors start closing.
I remember a bill that would have allowed truckers to use triple trailers. State law was silent on the subject. To think about triple trailers is to see them. Not only are they dangerous, they wear out roads paid for with taxpayer money.
Triple trailers are strictly a lone haul affair, cross country. You wouldn´t hire one to move your stuff across town. The bill was sold as an economic development measure. JC booster babies across the state swallowed it, hook, line and sinker. I say swallowed because the state where I worked had higher gas taxes than its neighbors. Truckers would fill up out of state, then sail through ours without stopping even for a cup of coffee. We called around: not a single in-state trucker wanted to use triple trailers. In sum, we are looking at a law that would benefit aliens only.
Visions of sugar plums danced in the heads of trucking company owners and stock holders; the economic benefits were as obvious as they were enormous. Since there was absolutely no positive public policy reason whatsoever for the state to allow triple trailers, the issue would have to be decided on, well, another basis.
The triple trailer bill flew through the senate and was on its way to the House. I went to see the chairman of the powerful Senate Finance Committee, who had led the fight against it. He saw me coming 100 feet away. “I know why you`re here,” he declared: “All I can say is, I got tire tracks up and down my back.”* After relating the gory details, he shook his head, then shook my hand: “You got about as much chance as a one-legged man in an ass kicking contest.” Nevertheless, he wished us the best of luck.
Before continuing I had better note something. All houses of representatives work via committees. Typically, each legislator is assigned by the Speaker – the man in charge who is elected by the house every 2 years -- to two committees to which the Speaker refers legislation for study, public hearings, etc. The committees then report to the full house their recommendation – Pass, Do Not Pass, Table. Over 90% of committee reports are adopted.
The Speaker supported the triple trailer bill, and referred it to only one committee, the House Transportation Committee controlled by the truckers. (A referral to two committees is bad, a triple referral is fatal). Conclusion: the trucker bill was, as we say in the trade, “wired up,” “greased.” The trucking industry lobbyists had done their job: No problem. A Movida,** if there ever was one.
To celebrate their impending victory, the lobbyists threw a party. The Majority Floor Leader instructed me to go. “Stay until the end. See who is talking to whom. And try not to get so drunk you can`t remember.”
The next morning I reported back. Excluding one person of note, everybody was present and accounted for, including the infamous Monkey Girls. They were so-named because, when stalking the bars and capitol corridors, they formed a line and held hands. I have no idea where they went when the legislative session ended, or if they even existed.
I went to see the Speaker as a courtesy and to see what was up. He told me he liked the triple trailer bill but indicated, via physical gestures, not strongly. Interpretation: if we killed it, no hard feelings. We will see why he was ambivalent in a moment. In the meantime, his single referral to Transportation made the trucker lobbyists happy, happier, happiest. Having done his part, as far as he was concerned, the matter was closed
And so, triple trailers were just around the corner, headed our way. The Floor Leader and I met: we needed a strategy and tactics fast. For every Movida there is an equal and opposite Movida.
Legislatures have a deadline for introducing bills, typically the halfway point. We were past it. So why didn’t we introduce earlier a bill against triple trailers ? Had we done so, the Speaker would have given it a triple referral, making it dead on arrival. And even if he did not, the senate would have killed it. Nobody would have taken it seriously.
Too late -- which was exactly the point...
A handful of bills introduced a minute before the deadline for introducing legislation all have the title: “A Measure for the Public Peace, Health and Safety.” If you look at their contents you will see…absolutely nothing. These are dummy bills reserved for the Majority Floor Leader and Speaker who instantly and automatically refers them to the House Rules Committee. There, consistent with their non-contents, dummy bills are tabled. Which is to say, nothing happens. Nothing. So, why do dummy bills exist?
If somebody wants a measure introduced after the deadline, it is done by: (1) having the Rules Committee give a dummy bill a Do Not Pass recommendation, then (2) creating a House Rules Committee substitute bill. The substitute is nothing less than the measure somebody wants introduced. (Note: if you are an outsider or a lobbyist and want the dummy bill trick performed, all I can say is, stand before a mirror and practice begging, hand wringing. Crying and whining are frowned on. Tip: putting an orange smile sticker advising “Have a nice day” on your bill draft will not improve its chances.)
On Friday morning the Floor Leader and I cooked up a two-minute bill. I went down the hall and handed it to the Rules Committee Chairman. He was an elderly gentleman with impeccable integrity: he was also the only noteworthy legislator mentioned above who was not at the truckers´ party. He effused a Santa Claus chuckle, took a dummy bill off the shelf and informed me the Substitute Bill would be ready Monday afternoon.
I went back to the Floor Leader´s office and placed a call to a media friend. TLC, I will call him.
TLC here does not mean “Tender Loving Care.”
The media covering politics are comparable to crows on a telephone line. You can throw rocks at them all day and they won´t move. Then suddenly, for no apparent reason, one crow takes off, and all the other crows will fly away in the same direction. My media friend was The Lead Crow; he was a crusty wire service reporter who had covered the capitol for 40 years (his pet theory was that legislators are elected because that`s the only way their constituents “can get the jerks out of town” for a few months).
Having spoken with TLC, all further media contact was dispensed with. No need; crows will be crows. Note: if you want to identify The Lead Crow covering your legislature, start by eliminating all the Aaawwww – I knew that! reporters and editors. In point of fact, they don´t know that, never will. Indeed, not knowing explains why they cannot hold their ink. They are the counterpart to another group to be identified shortly.
There was a remaining obstacle – a big one. TLC had wrecked his car on numerous occasions while DWI. His favorite joke was to get hammered, then sheepishly look you in the eye: “Want a ride home?” The Floor Leader and I dreaded that TLC could end up in the cooler that night, thereby derailing our Movida, which was dependent on TLC getting drunk but staying free long enough to tip off the truckers that a Movida was headed their way.
That night I dropped by the local political watering hole. TLC had safely made it home. I tried to buy a beer but the bartender said it was “covered,” then pointed to a crowd of trucker lobbyists ensconced at a large table. I did the proper thing, went over and thanked them. They pulled out a chair.*** The conversation was short.
“Tom, you bastard: touché.”
“I don´t see why you´re upset.”
“What´s the matter with our champagne and our Coquilles St. Jacques flown in from Normandy? At our party you -- ”
“I hate to tell you, but your champagne is to champagne what military music is to music. As for your Coquilles, I know a real one when I see it. You guys were serving cookie cutter shark meat.”
“My bags were packed, ready to go. I even called a taxi. Then the phone rings; a little birdie tells me that a bill outlawing triple trailers was about to climb off the table in the Rules Committee.”
“Again, why are you upset? You now have a reason to come back next year and start all over."
"Tom, how much are they paying you to cook up shit like this?”
“I make in a month what you make in the course of this conversation.”
“Touché, you bastard.”
Laughter, click of classes.
Way down deep, the lobbyists loved our bill. It placed the triple trailer affair in the category of shameless shakedowns occupied by the Right To Work bill (see the post of 9-26-2011 “Goodbye, Tweedle-dum.”) To wit: with the touch of a ballpoint pen, the triple trailer bill had been magically transformed into a Lawyers and Lobbyists Full Employment Act in which they could and would try, try and try again. Now you know why the Speaker was ambivalent about our Rules bill.
The truckers anticipated the avalanche of unfavorable media coverage our Rules bill would set off. Wives and children, neighbors and friends would ask how in the hell any law-maker in his right mind could oppose outlawing triple trailers. Under the withering TV lights, facing a jungle of microphones, legislators would start to wonder, waffle, request a “study” of triple trailers; the wheels would begin to come off the truckers´ bill.
As for identifying the authors of the Rules Movida, it took the truckers 3 seconds. To repeat, only the Speaker and the Majority Floor Leader controlled dummy bills, and the killer bill was not the Speaker´s.
In the end, a deal was cut. The triple trailer prohibition would not leave the Rules Committee in exchange for the truckers letting their bill quietly and demurely die on adjournment. Thus, the roads were safe for another year.
You don´t believe in happy endings? Them, us: everybody involved was happy, except the trucking company owners who never knew what hit them.
* * *
How can you avoid ending up as lobbyist cookie cutter shark meat? -- the hapless victim of a Movida in which your loss is your lobbyist´s gain?
Good lobbyists come and go; bad ones accumulate. If I recommended a “good” firm, the chances are personnel have changed since I dealt with it and the firm is now, well, something else. More important than offering names of individuals or companies, then, is the thinking process involved in screening bad ones out and good ones in. Here, as everywhere else, if appearance and reality always coincided, there would be no need for education.
(1) Many ex-legislators farm themselves out as lobbyists. They supposedly have contacts, know the ropes, etc. Seems to make sense, doesn´t it. Watch out! First, if these former law-makers were in leadership positions they undoubtedly made enemies in the legislature who are primed and ready to pounce on any opportunity to get even. Your bill may be it. And second, here´s a dirty little secret every law-maker knows but won´t tell: in any senate or house, only the leadership (Speaker, Majority Floor Leader, committee chairmen) has any power. The rest are “bumps on a log” as one Appropriations Chairman put it. The image is excellent. The bumps have no idea what is going on. They gaze up at the electronic vote board, see how their floor leader votes, then push the same button. Such is the content and limit of their “expertise.” I don´t want to sound hard-hearted, but, personally, I wouldn´t hire one of those guys to carry out my trash.
The bumps -- 90% of all legislators -- are the counterpart to the flock of media crows discussed earlier. There is, in fact, a direct correlation between them. A government is only as good as the media covering it. Which means, in the United States, we have serious problems. Perhaps fatal.
(2) It would seem logical that you would want to hire a lobbying firm that is big, hence powerful. Sadly, all too often the giants will accept your project, then coolly view it as another card in their hand. I know, I know: you believe you will have a better chance by working with lobbyists who have major league clients. Unfortuntely, the opposite is too often true. As the game progresses, if need be, the card you paid somebody to hold will be discarded. You, Mr. Little, will be sacrificed in the interest of Mr. Big. I saw it happen so many times I stopped shaking my head.
(3) Will you need to pay bribes? No. Bribes of course do occur, especially on big money measures which are politically unpopular and blatantly against the public interest. I recall a waste disposal lobbyist from out-of-state -- picture a Texas Woody Woodpecker -- inviting me to the political watering hole referred to above. I told him thanks but no thanks; the legislature was paying me for an 8-hour day and it was only two in the afternoon. He looked at the frozen, snow-covered ground: “We can make it worth your while.”
The ground stayed frozen.
The truth is the opposite of what he said. Laws regarding payoffs are written to be evaded. Campaign contributions, phony consulting contracts, picking up the tab for hotel rooms and meals so that legislators can pocket the per diem taxpayers pay them: those are just a few of hundreds of ways which are perfectly legal to buy somebody -- "honest graft." Perhaps now it is understandable why law-makers regard any politico who takes money illegally as a complete fool.
A concrete case of honest graft:
In the legislature where I worked, year after year, a bill allowing interstate banking was introduced. The measure would allow for an instate bank to buy an out-of-state bank. Like the triple trailer measure, the bill was sold as a wholesome, all-American economic development measure. Here, too, the JC booster babies were out in force; I kept waiting for balloons and cheerleaders to pop out of the woodwork. The measure sounds great, but look out. No instate bank ever stepped into the spotlight and took responsibility for the bill.
The constant, total, top secrecy suggested a Big Movida was in play. The Floor Leader and I decided that, given the contorted logic of Movidas, the real issue had nothing whatsoever to do with buying an out-of-state bank but rather precisely the opposite, i.e., selling an in-state one. Somebody was really determined to get this measure through yet stay hidden. There was only one explanation: megabucks were involved.
Secret, salacious, shady, big money: it was entirely fitting that the interstate banking bill had fallen into the shameless shakedown category cited above.
I had the staff prepare a study of who had sponsored and cosponsored interstate banking down through the years. We suspected that the interested party would, as elsewhere, cover his tracks and not want to be publicly identified; hence, the nonsponsors, not the sponsors, interested us. The pieces started to fall into place. Via a process of elimination, we finally tracked down the man behind the curtain: a legislator who had a bank in his district, which had an out-of-state suitor. Were we right?
All I can say is, a few days before the bill passed the legislature, the bank´s stock more than doubled. Insiders had run down to Merrill Lynch and placed their bets. Was the hidden legislator among them? If he was, at the time there was absolutely nothing illegal involved.
The Floor Leader and I joked about selling the bank short, then going upstairs and convincing the governor to veto the interstate banking bill. With great fanfare, the profits would have been donated to charity. It would have been a Movida which the pillage and plunder crowd nationwide would never forget.
(4) It has been my experience that anybody peddling influence doesn´t have it. Good lobbyists provide good information; they will research your questions and give reliable answers fast. They will also give the pros and the cons of their bill, and of course explain why the former outnumber the latter. Finally, they always work directly with the leadership and don´t waste time talking to bumps on a log. Be leery of lobbyists who preach otherwise; what they are really looking for is an excuse to keep their meters running.
To find the good information people, focus on lobbyists who have experience and expertise in your area: agriculture, TV cable companies, whatever. Above all, beware of the Big Mouth Small Brain Syndrome afflicting lobbyists. Lawyers in particular love to pretend they can handle any area of the law. Politely listen to their spiel, then screen them by, again, focusing only on specialists in your area. After all, you would not ask a psychiatrist for a facelift even though legally, as a MD, he is allowed to perform one. Sounds like simple common sense, yet you would be amazed at the number of people who don´t follow it, and end up with empty wallets and their noses upside down.
(5) All legislation has a financial impact. But if it is small, is in the public interest, and/or is not controversial -- we put in a bill outlawing dog fighting; not a single person showed up to testify against it – you don´t need a big league lobbyist. Indeed, maybe you should register as a lobbyist and push the measure yourself. (i) Normally, you will need to talk to only about 10 people – the leadership. (ii) Do it before the session starts and lawmakers get busy. (iii) To help convince a leader, try to bring with you one or more of his constituents; also, never forget your own representative. (iv) Pick your bill sponsor with great care; see who has carried what and what happened in past sessions. It`s all public record. You will have to prepare press statements and speeches for the sponsor and support him in a myriad of other ways. After all, in the end it is your bill, not his. (v) Notify the governor´s office early. Do not lobby them, however, until your bill has passed the legislature. They will view you as a pest.
A legislative session is like an electoral campaign. Most of the time, it only confirms and consolidates what is already in place. With the leadership “on board,” the ballgame is over before the first pitch is thrown. The trucker lobbyists were experts at this process, and were running on all cylinders six months before the legislature opened its doors.
If you decide to do it yourself, you will rub elbows with other lobbyists in the mail room, committee hearings, hotels, parties, restaurants and bars. You will quickly discover that in the world of lobbyists (1) there are more con men per square inch than in any prison. (2) Only one trade surpasses lobbyists in the Big Mouth Small Brain Syndrome: literary agents.
Next Post: Lobbyists (2): Naming Names.
NOTE: in the above account, some details and events have been altered, but not to protect the innocent.
*This from a man who entered local mythology:
An out-of-state lobbyist once was granted the privilege of joining Mr. Chairman for lunch. Apparently determined to break the ice with a joke, he told Mr. Chairman: “I hear your hometown is so poor, a tornado ran through it and caused $2,000,000 worth of improvements.” Mr. Chairman floored him with one punch, then yanked the tablecloth and dumped the silverware and place settings onto the startled patron´s head. “Vain attempt at humor: F,” Mr. Chairman entoned, then left the premises before the cops arrived.
**Definition. Movida: 1. A clever bit of mischief. 2. Somebody else´s attractive girl friend. Synonyms: Maneuver. Trick. Stunt. Fake out. Ploy.
***Outsiders are always amazed at how political opponents can even speak to each other, much less be friendly. Actually, there is nothing amazing about it. Think back to phys ed class, and the choosing up of sides for touch football. Your teammate and friend today may be your adversary tomorrow. I will go into this in a future post.