The public finds them distasteful, and politicians avoid association with them, but lobbyists play an important and often misunderstood role in politics.
Like most things in politics, the parameters and exact definition of lobbying are murky. The profession connotes images of bloated salaries, exploitive favors and misused tax dollars. My admittedly cartoonish understanding of lobbyists were that they were the shadowy figures lurking in the hallways of the Capitol building, pining for a moment of face time with their local rep.
There are countless examples of lobbying’s more nefarious side, but it’s also worth acknowledging the watchdog role of lobbying. As Steve Gano sees it, he’s an advocate on behalf of his clients. A lawyer of the political arena.
Gano was hitchhiking home from his summer job one weekend in college, when he happened upon his future in politics. A car pulled over, offering him a ride to campus, and Gano noticed that the back of the vehicle was full of yard signs.
“What are these for?” he asked the driver.
“I’m running for reelection,” said the Idaho legislator.
Though still a college student at the time, Gano’s interest was piqued. He’d later go onto win the Association of Washington Business’ “lobbyist of the year,” taking on clients in industries ranging from tobacco (Altria) and finance (Key Bank), to healthcare (Premera), retail (AT&T) and timber (Plum Creek).
“Lobbyists can be helpful in that they’re experts on certain things,” explained Trent England, vice president of policy at the Freedom Foundation, a government oversight organization. “But they also have clients, and a job to do.”
There are two sides to every coin.
Gano has been lobbying in WA state since 1984 and says that much of his work is proofing well-intentioned legislation. In the early stages of a bill, its language is often vague and may inadvertently hurt some stakeholders. Lobbyists then, act as conduits between interest groups and policymakers, the hyper-vigilant who see that a bill (and their own agendas) don’t go unnoticed.
“These folks are being bombarded by hundreds of people like me for requests; constituents are writing them emails all the time; they have committee meetings to go to,” said Gano. “Our goal is to make sure a bill doesn’t get lost in the shuffle.”
That means scrupulously tracking anything that crosses a legislator’s desk in Olympia. And the stakes are high as states are asked to take on more of the federal government’s burden.
“In that sense, they’re a fire alarm,” said Professor Mark Smith of the University of Washington’s political science department.
Gano estimates that there are several hundred lobbyists in WA state, roughly 100 of which are advocating daily for a cause or client. And while lobbyists are required to register with state and federal governments, it’s a profession without credentials. Of that mob of government contractors, backgrounds and resumes vary greatly: from a degree in forestry to an avid self-interest in healthcare.
As a contract lobbyist Gano works for a multitude of clients. He’s joined by corporate lobbyists, grassroots activists and firms, all advocating at different levels and degrees.
“[As a lobbyist] you’ll often give campaign contributions to get access to the legislators after they’re elected,” Smith explained.
Last year for instance, Gano donated $500 to Sen. Steve Hobbs (D) in the race to fill U.S. Rep. Jay Inslee’s seat in the 1st Congressional District.
“Campaign finance, and lobbying, goes together,” said Smith. “That campaign finance angle gives you a foot in the door.”
After the legislative session ends, Gano explains that lobbyists switch into a campaign mode of their own. He spends the season tracking voting records, reviewing projects and vetting candidates.
“You have to be able to relate the story and the information back to the person you’re talking to,” he said.
It’s difficult to track how an exchange of favors—dinner with a representative, a trip with a lawmaker—translate into votes. But Washington’s Public Disclosure Commission, and other transparency measures, aim to change that.
A 2010 report released by the Freedom Foundation found nearly 70 of the state’s public agencies had failed to report lobbying expenses. The findings were mostly attributed to laziness, said England. But it challenges the fortitude of some public figures to see the forest through the trees when bombarded with requests.
And yet Gano insists that despite its bad rap, lobbyists offer a critical link between the public and politicians.
“It’s something citizens should be interested in,” warns England. “Lobbyists can be helpful as experts, but they have clients and a job to do.”