Interstate Driving – A Lobbying Analogy

Lobbying can be analogized as driving on a 3 pm urban Interstate. Drivers are traveling the legislative road because they expect it can change laws faster and cheaper than navigating the roads run by the executive and judicial branches.

The legislature focuses on policy, is less constrained by technical facts (which agencies take care of), and only has on average a 120-day legislative session to do its work.  Shelby Rhinehart, the longest-serving member ever in the Tennessee House of Representatives, said “Don’t bother me with the facts.” He was known as, “The man who could get it done.”  A Florida house staffer summed up the process as, “Facts don’t vote.” Focusing on policy makes legislative lawmaking faster and cheaper than going through judicially appealable, fact-intensive courts and executive agencies.

Some drive the slow lane, normally lobbyists who get paid to be there, not for accomplishing anything. Whether a bill is passed or is killed, they get paid the same and jobs are secure. They are observers, maybe low-energy representatives, but not drivers.

Those driving the fast lane get results. They make off-session back home in the district visits, act as shadow staff to legislative staff, organize coalitions, negotiate like the money on the table is theirs, go to or host fundraisers. They are working when the placeholders have gone home for the night. Almost any special interest willing to invest sufficient resources can become a player – big or small.

In the middle lanes, are the large tractor-trailer rigs and other “let’s do what we want to do” drivers. They are the state chambers of commerce (red states), big unions (blue states), and groups that can mobilize powerful resources when needed. They have in-house professional quality lobbying staff, lobbying firms on retainer, and the memberships to bring pinpoint constituent pressure. They don’t need to assert themselves because, like tandem UPS trucks, everyone knows they are there. They welcome coalition partners mostly to blur their fingerprints on self-interest legislation. They often think they can do it on their own, and are generally right.

Other middle lane drivers are state professional and industry associations, larger environmental groups, and associations who as needed can make their presence known. They mostly work on niche issues. Seldom can they do it alone – they work best and most cost-effectively through coalitions.

Lawmakers ride on buses driven by their respective leaderships. Each party has its own bus. Riders vote as the driver tells them, that is, unless there is strong member push-back, which seldom happens. The majority party has the rock star bus flying down the HOV lane making laws.

The minority party drives an old school bus in the slow lane wishing it could make some kind of law. When the Republicans took over the Tennessee House a Democrat lawmaker asked me to suggest a bill to sponsor – maybe a specialty license plate or naming a bridge? It is the same with Rs in Hawaii. (Go to the Multistate Associates website to see who is driving the power bus and who is driving the ‘it doesn’t matter whether you show up or not’ old school bus.)

For most lawmakers, if your message can’t be read in the time it takes to read a billboard while driving at 70 mph, expect your point will be lost. They don’t have the time to listen, much less understand.  An Oregon legislative staffer said to me, “Bob, a page and a half is entirely too much information [in a leave-behind]. All I need from you is three bullet points.” The broader the appeal the billboard has, the more likely the message will be heard. For example, the Polaris project that combats sex trafficking gets a warm welcome in every legislature. Fair Sentencing of Youth, even in red law-and-order states, gets a hearing. Most of us can remember how stupid we also were when young.

Analogies are always lacking. But if you explain the legislative process as more akin to driving on an urban Interstate than being a coordinated symphony, your listeners will better understand the legislative process.


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