The word lobbyist understandably turns off a lot of people. We mostly imagine rich people wining and dining politicians to get their way while the rest of us get left out of the conversation. But there are many kinds of lobbyists, including those who represent their strong convictions and give the grassroots a voice in the halls of power.
I spent the first part of this week on a lobbying trip to Washington, DC, one of many that I’ve taken over the last several years. One of the most rewarding experiences I have is working with people who have never lobbied before. You get to see the nervousness tinged with excitement turn into a sense of accomplishment when people realize that in fact they can be effective lobbyists too. Speaking directly with the people making decisions is one of the most powerful tools we have as organizers. This last trip got me thinking about how we need more and more people lobbying for the progressive agenda, so I want to offer some reasons why you should become a lobbyist too:
- It’s easy. A lot of people don’t realize how easy it actually is to get a meeting with a politician or her/his staff. If you’re a constituent, or part of a group that represents constituents, it’s usually as simple as making some phone calls and sending some emails, whether it’s local, state or federal politicians you want to meet with. Sometimes people are a little disappointed to meet with a staffer instead of a legislator, but the fact is that staffers are the gatekeepers who decide what gets on a politician’s desk. How a staffer feels can make or break your issue.
- It’s one of the most effective organizing tools. The Congressional Management Foundation conducted a survey and found that meeting with constituents has more influence over a member of Congress’s decision than any other advocacy tactic. It’s a way to force an issue onto their agenda and make sure they can’t ignore it, and to respond directly to their arguments and concerns.
- You can learn a lot. People often envision lobbying as sitting down and laying out your arguments and waiting for a response from the politician. That’s a part of it, but if you’re not asking questions, you’re not getting as much as you can out of lobbying. Sitting down with people who are inside the process is a great way to find out whom they’re hearing from, what’s influencing their decision making, what arguments are most powerful and how you can help to make sure you win on your issues. It’s also a way for the inside and outside strategies to meet and coordinate with allies to move an agenda.
- They need to hear from outside their bubble. It’s very easy for people to get bogged down in inside baseball and the narrow conversation within the political sphere. Sometimes people need a reality check, and facing people who are directly impacted by their policies is a great way to do that. It often also exposes them to arguments and issues they weren’t even aware of. Without that outside presence, constituents can get drowned out by the talking points provided by groups that are based in the centers of power and don’t have our interests at heart. I’ve been told more than once by a staffer that hearing from people in their state and district gives them the power to make the case up the chain of command that they need to take the right position on an issue.
- You don’t need to be an expert. Before the first time I walked into an office on Capitol Hill, I was so nervous that I wouldn’t know enough or that I would get asked a difficult question I couldn’t answer. But once you get into those meetings, you realize you’re just having a conversation with a human being. And the most important thing you can offer is your story. A staffer or a politician is going to remember a compelling story about how people are impacted by policies far longer than he or she will remember a bunch of facts and figures. While you want that information to back up your case as well, you don’t need to know everything there is to know about an issue to be an effective lobbyist.
- We can’t let the other side own lobbying. If we wash our hands of lobbying as a tactic, we’re surrendering a huge part of the political playing field to corporate, conservative interests. They would be more than happy if we would just stop talking and go away. I’ve seen how only hearing from one side makes it far too easy for politicians to take the path of least resistance, even if they recognize it as the wrong one. If we’re not making our voices heard in every possible way, and increasing the political cost of ignoring us, we’re making it far too easy for politicians to ignore our demands.
- It’s fun. Yes, I’m a huge dork. I lobby for my job, and then I go and lobby in my free time. After dozens (probably hundreds at this point) of these meetings, I still find it fascinating and fun. I do it because it’s interesting to see politics at work up close, I meet a lot of smart and dedicated people (sometimes even dogs), I hear interesting stories I won’t hear anywhere else, and I know that in some small way I’m making a difference.
I’m not saying every lobbying experience you have will be positive. Some people will be jerks, and often you won’t get what you want, especially not right away. And lobbying alone is not going to change things. Like with all organizing, you need a multi-layered approach to win.
Despite all the ups and downs of the process, I almost always see people come out of their first lobbying experience feeling pleasantly surprised and empowered. It’s our government, and we need to be active in it every way we can.
Have you ever lobbied before? What was your experience like?