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Lobbying and Driving on an Urban Interstate

Lobbying larger state legislatures is analogous to driving on a crowded aggressive urban Interstate. Everyone is driving on the same road because that’s the only road to get where they want to go – that is, get a law. Each is traveling to a different ultimate destination, which is getting their law. Few are thinking about their fellow drivers sharing the road, unless their fellow driver intrudes into their lane, such as by hogging a member’s time before a committee vote.

Some are driving in the slow lane, normally those lobbyists who are just warm bodies. They get paid to be there, not for actually accomplishing anything.  Whether their bill is passed or is killed they get paid the same and jobs are secure. They are not players.

Those driving in the fast lane have to get somewhere – they have to get the right law and will drive fast and aggressively to get it. They are making off-session back home in the district visits, acting as shadow staff to legislative staff, organizing coalitions. They are the players. Almost any interest willing to invest sufficient resources can become a player – big player or small player.

In the middle lanes, are the large tractor-trailer rigs and other “let’s see what we want to do” drivers. The tractor-trailers are the state chambers of commerce (red states), UAW (blue states), AARP (most states) and groups who can mobilize powerful resources when they need to. They have the in-house professional lobbying staff, lobbying firms on retainer, and membership to quickly mobilize constituent pressure. At the moment they are monitoring the legislature, working in the background, involved in a few bills. They don’t need to assert themselves, like a tractor-trailer rig, everyone knows they are there. They may welcome coalition partners at times but mostly just to blur their fingerprints. They often think they can do it on their own, and they are generally right.

The other middle lane drivers are state Federations of Independent Business, Farm Bureaus, professional and industry associations, large environmental groups, and associations who when needed can make known their presence. They mostly work on specialized or niche issues. Seldom can they do it alone – they work best and most cost-effectively through coalitions.

Players will cut off another drivers, get angry with competitors and unless restrained by the law, they will do whatever is necessary to get to their destination as quickly and cost-effectively as they can.

Lawmakers are driving on the same Interstate. They are riding on buses driven by their respective leaderships. Each party has its own bus. The riders vote as the driver tells them, that is, unless it interferes with constituent demands, which seldom happens. The majority party has a big rock star fast bus flying down the HOV lane making laws.

The minority is driving a yellow school bus in the slow lane wishing it could make some laws. When the Republicans solidly took over the Tennessee House I recall a D lawmaker asking me for a bill to sponsor – maybe a specialty license plate, naming a bridge? As of this writing there are 26 Ds and 73 Rs in the Tennessee House, so who cares if Ds even show up? Their bus is chugging and smoking. It is the same with Rs in Hawaii. (Go to the Multistate Associates Inc. website to see who is driving the sleek power bus and who is driving the chugging, smoking, ‘it doesn’t matter if you even 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 to more.  An Oregon legislative staffer said to me, “Bob a page and a half is entirely too much information. All I need from you is three bullet points.” The broader the appeal the billboard has, the more likely your message will be heard. For example, the Polaris project to combat sex trafficking gets a warm welcome in every legislature.

Analogies are always lacking and a writer doesn’t want to risk overdoing them. It’s time to let this one go. For now, if you see the legislative process more as akin to drivers on the Interstate rather than as some predetermined coordinated symphony, you will understand better how the system really works.

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