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In Praise of State Legislative Lobbying

Google “lobbyist” and lobbyists’ ill deeds fill the first several pages of query results. Google’s first non-paid listing is, “The Best Books on Lobbying – Five Books.” I’ve read three of the five, none optimistic for our profession. These results explain the joke, “Don’t tell my mom I’m a lobbyist, she still thinks I’m a piano player in a whorehouse.” [1]

I don’t know everything there is to know about lobbying. But I’ve learned something over 40 years working in, for, and with government, writing seven best practices lobbying manuals[2], lobbying in many US states, Washington, DC, and Canada, and teaching lobbying at university and professional levels for 20 years.

Yes, “Casino” Jack Abramoff, the “Tennessee Waltz,” and “honey bees” are real. I’ve known unnamed scoundrels, a few to whom I allude in my writings. But 99+ percent of lobbyists are honorable; but not only for the threat of legal prosecution or loss of reputation, clients, or effectiveness. A better insight comes from a respected state lobbyist many of you know. He recently said to me, “Doing the ethical thing is its own reward!” In part, because of lobbyists’ scrupulous honesty, the US system of advocacy works well, despite untoward public views.

For state lobbyists, I speculate our negative reviews may be in part from working with state legislatures themselves.[3] The public’s view of state legislatures has ebbed and flowed over time, and the survey of attitudes analyzed here suggest that state legislatures are currently not well regarded.”[4]

Further, lawmaking often makes no sense to the general public because while procedurally logical it is often fact-irrational.[5] At least a third of the public likely disapproves of the legislature no matter what it does. “We show that one’s political ideology matters as it relates to approval of legislatures…”[6] Citizen disengagement with lawmaking also fuels disapproval.[7]  Then there is the legacy media’s “… kicking the hornet’s nest to get clicks… publishing stuff purely to provoke your readers.”[8]  On Facebook, 76% of people love to hate what they read about, presumably including lobbyists and lawmakers.[9]

Perhaps because of the above, “The public perception of those in the government affairs business consistently beats out salespeople, members of Congress and lawyers for the honor of being considered the least-trusted professionals.”[10]

But lawmakers, not the public, are our first concern. And lawmakers aren’t going anywhere unexpected. “State-level incumbents had [in 2020] a 95% win rate. Five states had a 100% win rate in state-level races.”[11]

Known as straight-shooting political and technical resources, state lobbyists must cultivate the respect of lawmakers. But for the public, we, like the CIA, go in, do our jobs well, and no one will ever know we were there. [12]The public’s eye belongs to lawmakers alone and I advise my seminar participants and readers to stay out of it.

Despite often unfounded cultural and media disapproval, lobbying will continue pretty much as it always has. This is because the 1st Amendment to the US Constitution establishes the right of the people “…to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.” And by petitioning, we not only advance our principals’ interests but also counter governments’ “… lawful abuses of power, not merely unlawful abuses or ‘usurpations.’” [13]

Ours is a worthy profession. We represent our principals, honorably and within the law, thereby upholding their vital constitutional rights, contributing to the creation of public policy and the body of law, and advancing a constitutional role of which we have every right to be proud.

Just don’t expect to be known, much less well-received by everyone, unless perhaps you play the piano.

[1] “Don’t Tell My Mom I’m A Lobbyist…” Daily Kos (January 4, 2006) https://www.dailykos.com/stories/2006/1/3/175932/.
[2] Six-volume Insiders Talk Winning series, 3 editions of Guide to State Legislative Lobbying.
[3] Disclosure: While I worked off and on at the federal level, the vast majority of my work has been and is in state government affairs.
[4] Richardson, L., Konisky, D., & Milyo, J. “Public Approval of U.S. State Legislatures,” Legislative Studies Quarterly, 37 (1), 99-116. (2012) (Retrieved September 7, 2021) http://www.jstor.org/stable/41719833, at 14.
[5] “Advice for New Lobbyists: How to Work in a Logical, but Irrational Environment,”  Lobby School blog (2021) https://lobbyschool.com/advice-for-new-lobbyists-how-to-work-in-a-logical-but-irrational-environment/.
[6] Richardson, et al. at 13.
[7] Maggie Glynn, “Texans only give state legislature 28% approval rating as special session wraps up,” Nexstar Media Inc. (September 3, 2021) https://www.kxan.com/news/texas-politics/texans-only-give-state-legislature-28-approval-rating-as-special-session-wraps-up/
[8] “The Case Against the Media. By the Media,” New York Magazine (July 25, 2016) https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2016/07/case-against-media.html. This extensive article explains the “why” of MSM misreporting.
[9] Id.
[10] Nicholas Birdsong, “Yes, No, Maybe So: What’s (Un)Ethical About Lobbying?” National Conference of State Legislatures (2020) https://www.ncsl.org/bookstore/state-legislatures-magazine/yes-no-maybe-so-what-s-un-ethical-about-lobbying.aspx.
[11] “Election results, 2020: Incumbent win rates by state.” Ballotpedia (Updated 6:30 pm EST, February 11, 2021) https://ballotpedia.org/Election_results,_2020:_Incumbent_win_rates_by_state.
[12] This quip is not original to me. I heard it giving a private seminar to an Illinois business coalition.
[13] Teachout, Zephyr. “The Anti-Corruption Principle,” 94 Cornell L. Rev. 341 (2009), 380.

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