Saturday, July 18, 2009

Why having lobbyists is a good thing

In our highly politically charged society that pits group against group we rarely seek to work as a collective unit but instead seek to see what advantage we can attain over others through legislation. It is in this quest that the roll of the lobbyist gains importance. Of course when things don't go our way we blame "special interest" and find a scapegoat in lobbyist. For years there have been calls for reform that will limit the roll or influence of lobbyist.

Before embarking on a hastily conceived ad hoc approach to political activism it may be best to learn more about lobbying and lobbyist. Often looked upon as secret and mysterious, lobbying gives rise to speculations that add fuel to perceptions that are rarely consistent with its true nature. The result is distrust towards those engaged in lobbying, a totally legitimate occupation according to the National Assembly. The opinion that lobbying should not occur in a democratic society also impairs the overall perception of this activity. In this context, it is not surprising to see people who lobby hesitate to identify themselves as lobbyists. To clarify these notions, it is important to distinguish between lobbying and lobbyists.

Lobbyists use time spent with legislators to explain the goals of the organizations which they represent and the obstacles elected officials face when dealing with issues, to clients. I believe that after you read this you will have a greater appreciation, not only for the work I do as a lobbyist, but, for the valuable roll that lobbyist serve in the legislative process.

Overall, lobbying corresponds to the steps taken by a lobbyist to represent the interests of a lobby, a client, an enterprise or an organization. It concerns oral or written communications aimed at influencing the decisions of a public office holder. In Indiana Lobbying is define as "communicating by any means, or paying others to communicate by any means, with any legislative official with the purpose of influencing any legislative action." IC 2-7-1-9

Many times, people who communicate with members of a public institution in an attempt to influence a decision are specialized stakeholders called lobbyists. A lobbyist is not a person specializing in public relations; he or she may just as well be a lawyer, an engineer, a urban planner or a geologist, for example.
In essence, a lobbyist's function is to speak on behalf of the lobby, of a client, an enterprise or an organization that he or she represents in order to influence a public office holder.
As representative of a lobby, client, enterprise or organization, a lobbyist must be well informed, not only about the project he is responsible for, but also about the political or administrative structures of each of the authorities his file must go through. Moreover, he must develop intervention strategies and be able to communicate his message efficiently.
In Indiana Lobbyist is defined as "any person who engages in lobbying and in any registration year, receives or expends an aggregate of five hundred dollars ($500) in compensation or expenditures reportable under this article for lobbying, whether the compensation or expenditure is solely for lobbying or the lobbying is incidental to that individual's regular employment." IC 2-7-1-10

In Indiana, where I work as a lobbyist, our state legislators introduce over 2000 bills per year. When Michael Moore paraded around Washington D.C. in an ice cream truck reading the text of The Patriot Act many of the legislators where being exposed to those words for the first time. Senator John Conyers was candid in admitting to Moore that they don't read the bills presented to them.

Legislators are popularly elected, usually for their position on issues, not their skills in reading or writing law. Often times legislators are not familiar with the legal technicalities of the ideas they wish to put into legislation. Even the more simple concept of just identifying the issues is beyond the scope of most legislators.

This year and in the past as I testified at hearings on bills or before study committees I was spontaneously asked by the legislators who wrote passed them what the current law is or how it is applied. This year the House passed a bill by a vote of 99-0 that included provisions adopted from another law that was similar. However, this bill included a provision that judges consider the relationship of both parents with a child which has only lived with one parent. I was the only person to bring to the attention of the General Assembly that this law failed to consider the unique circumstances of paternity that differentiate it from marital relationships. I wrote about that bill here.

Lobbyist serve an essential roll of providing research, analysis and constituent desires to legislators. Lobbyist represent the interest of the organizations or enterprises who have hired them. Many people join organizations for the very purpose of funding the lobbying efforts. One of the largest lobbying groups is the AARP which claims membership of 35 million, over 1/10 of the US population. The AARP spends significant amounts of money to research, write and push legislators to pass laws on behalf of their 35 million members. Our members of Congress would face a logistical impossibility to accommodate communicating with 35 million people instead of the mere hundreds of lobbyist employed by the AARP to push their agenda.

If you have the skill and knowledge to research the topics that your legislators are called upon to debate then please step into the arena and assist. Not every shareholder in a corporation can visit the statehouse on their own behalf. Not every person affected by legislation can visit the statehouse on their own behalf. Not every legislator has time to listen to the concerns of each constituent and discuss legislation with them. Not every legislator has time to read all of the legislation presented to them. Until such time as that can happen then maybe it would be a good idea to appreciate the work that lobbyist are doing on your behalf.

Indiana Shared Parenting

Stuart Showalter

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