Lobbyist- the word conjures the image of some lawyer or public relations professional, wearing $3,000.00 suits and Gucci loafers, ensconced in a posh office on K Street and plotting to entice law makers with wildly expensive perks to influence them to do the bidding of the lobbyist client at the expense of the public good.
Lobbyists have been at the center of the Presidential election- both candidates vowing to keep these “dangerous influence peddlers” away from them. The word “lobbyist” comes off their tongues like it is synonymous with Satan.
Lobbying is a Constitutional right. Of course the Constitution does not mention the word lobbying- but its constitutional protection within the first amendment. In the United States, the right to petition is guaranteed by the First Amendment to the Constitution, and it specifically prohibits Congress from abridging “the right of the people … to petition the Government for redress of grievances.” Its roots within the colonies can be traced back to the Declaration of Independence. Historically, the right can be traced back further, to English documents such as the Magna Carta, which, by its acceptance by the monarchy, implicitly affirmed the right, and the later Bill of Rights 1689, which explicitly declared the “right of the subjects to petition the king”.
The word “lobby” or “lobbyist” derives from the 1800’s when people who were looking to talk to a lawmaker about their issue would hang around the lobbies of the Congress waiting to get a few moments to make their case.
Are there lobbyists who do nothing but try to influence public policy to help corporate clients with tax structures that will benefit them and government programs that will fund their industry? Sure there are and often these lobbyists are former law makers themselves coming through the revolving door of Capitol Hill and K Street. And yes, these lobbyists are zealous advocates for their clients and many times this advocacy is not in the public interest, but often the interest of the client is in line with some segment of the nation’s population.
But the truth is that a significant number of lobbyists are modestly paid or pro bono representatives for social issues. Often these individuals are from the communities affected by public policy. There are Coalitions of organizations combating cancer, advocating for children’s rights, advocating for programs that will help the poor, advocating for laws that can positively impact the public good.
In a representative democracy of 300 million people, without professional efforts of intermediaries and direct activists, the power of the people to influence government policy would be limited primarily to the ballot box. Lost would be the ability to convey direct viewpoints to seated politicians and agency personnel when the need was immediate. The dialogue of the election process is a slow one indeed. A lobbyist (another way of saying representative or activist) can convey exact positions to policy makers, press the issues consistently over time, and track results.
I was a registered lobbyist in California and I have lobbied Congress for over 13 years. As a person living with HIV/AIDS- I have advocating for people living with HV/AIDS to fund health care, ensuring access for communities disproportionately impacted by the epidemic, scientifically based prevention policies, finding strategies to help communities of color, who have poorer health outcomes across all health issues, to have better success in living with HIV/AIDS. Programs in the state on care and prevention and federal programs such as Medicare, Medicaid, Ryan White programs, Substance Abuse and Mental Health Administration (SAMHSA), Housing, health care in the Veterans Affairs system are all issues that impact the lives of people living with HIV/AIDS.
I have lobbied through as an employee of the San Francisco AIDS Foundation‘s Public Policy Department mostly for programs that were not among the services at the foundation. And when the programs, state or federally funded, were among the services offered by the foundation, the line of funding went through the city and proposals for projects went through a competitive bidding process at the city level. There was never direct funding from the state or the federal government that would directly be funneled to the foundation. Plus, while the staff of SFAF was paid well by non-profit standards we were not well paid by private sector standards, no one was getting rich.
For the last eight years since I have had to stop working due to precarious health, I have lobbied as a community advocate and do so as a board member of several national coalitions that advocate on HIV/AIDS issues. While the work remains the same as when I was paid staff, as a volunteer board member – tending to my health can be the priority, not the work. This allows me to skip on certain activities and have a schedule that is dictated by my health without guilt or a negative impact on an employer.
How do we get work done? It isn’t not easy.
A group of people who are impacted by HIV/AIDS and the organizations that serve them come together in a grassroots model often around an issue such as housing, care or, employment issues for people living with AIDS.
The coalition comes to consensus on the desired outcome and asks will people with HIV/AIDS be positively impacted in a way that will imrpove their health and quality of life? Believe me- the HIV/AIDS community is not monolithic. With good intentions, people differ on which issues are the most important. Clearly health care is the most mportant, but for some communities differ on other issues will help stabilize individuals with HIV/AIDS so they can be successful with their medical care and medication adherence. housing is often unaffordable for someone who is sick and poor and lessening the risk of homelessness may be the priority. Substance use programs may be the priority since some communities are plagued by substance use which definately impacts both health adn the ability to adhere to complex medical care. Some see case mangagement as essential in order to help clients with chaotic navigare the sustem of care and connect them with needed. The list is endless and countless hours are spent coming to agreement on common goals and that are always based on research, analyses, needs assessments, epidemiology, trends and the input of people living with HIV.
After deciding a goal, the group decides what needs to happen to meet that goal. Is it legislation, is it a regulation change, is it funding? Once that decision is made a strategy is developed which includes, what other groups should be brought into the work, a timeline, key law makers, documents to use to make the case, what the need and what can we live with to make the effort worth while.
Once the key lawmakers are identified they are asked to carry the issue to, at the federal level, other member of Congress. Ideally a key member from the House and a key Senator are identified. If they agree- another negotiation occurs as to what is “doable” in terms of other priorities and issues that Congress has.
Often times the coalition will work closely with staff of lawmakers to help draft legislative language or develop funding levels that will meet the agreed upon goals.
After that- these key lawmakers bring the case to their colleagues before it even gets to a committee or the floor. The coalition also uses its grassroots- other people living with HIV/AIDS, service providers and other stakeholders to speak- to meet with their members of Congress and/or staff either in Washington or at home in the district office and to call, write or email them in order to educate the member on the issue’s importance and how it impacts both the nation and their district with a request for support . If there is enough support to make the effort feasible, the process begins in Congress and more work is done on advocacy and re-drafting legislation or re-working budget numbers to come to the compromise(s) it will need to have a chance of passing out of committee or mulitple committees and ideally get to the floor of both houses (note the whole project can die at any of these steps). If the item takes longer than the current Congress (each is 2 years) it needs to be re-introduced in the next Congress and the whole process has to be repeated. Since these issues come through both the Senate and the House- often their are differences between the two bills – sometimes minimal, sometimes major- and they have to be conferenced. Lobbyists have to be engaged in every step of this process and often see the effort evaporate.
This is how the lobbyists I work with do their jobs- long (often multi-year), tedious projects, trying to fight an uphill battle that is on behalf of better health, care and the well being of people.
We don’t have corporate jets or lure lawmakers with expensive meals or vacations, but we do zealously advocate for the greater good and we are a big chunk of the lobbyists on Capitol Hill. Lobbying is not always bad, most are ethincal and it is a Constitutional right. As in all things when greed takes hold of a few, it overshadows the majority.