Rules for Executive Branch
Jan. 8, 2009
By Jerry Kopel
You got a promotion to become an executive branch lobbyist at the
legislature? Here are seven rules of conduct that may prevent some
unfortunate episodes, and might save some legislation from defeat.
Rule No. 1: If you ask a legislator for help, either in voting for a
bill, offering an amendment, speaking for a measure, or protecting the
department's funding, be prepared to reciprocate.
As a legislator, I was often the advocate for the Department of
Regulatory Agencies. That began with the Sunset process I carried as
chief sponsor in 1976. In the years that followed, I carried bills to
modernize the licensing process and expand the department's role in
reviewing regulatory legislation.
When I asked for their support for a "then untried" process now known as
the psychotherapy grievance board, they gave it, not only because the
concept made sense, but also because it came from some one who had
battled for them in the legislative arena.
Reciprocity may not have to do with legislation, which brings us to:
Rule No. 2: If a legislator asks for assistance on a matter, do it
unless it is contrary to some policy of your office.
Legislators are elected and their constituents have to deal with
government. Often, third or fourth echelon employees give a constituent
a hard time in resolving a problem.
The constituent complains to the legislator. The legislator asks the top
people in your department to render assistance. You render that
The constituent is grateful to the legislator and the legislator feels
warmly about you, all because some lower echelon employee acted
thoughtlessly. The legislator is now someone who will listen to you on
the merits of a particular bill.
Obviously, you want to give preferential treatment to a legislator who
has been helpful to you. But even an opponent can be softened by the way
you handle a constituent problem.
Lobbyists for non-governmental groups are aware of this rule. When a
social worker had been denied the right to take an exam because papers
were not in order, the Social Workers professional association would
send the person to me if it was my constituent. They knew that I would
contact the department and they knew the department would do their best
to satisfy my concern.
Rule No 3: In pushing for legislation, begin by deciding how much you
can delegate to potential allies.
Once DORA decided to support my grievance board, they had to decide how
to proceed. The legislature is clogged with special interests
represented by numerous lobbyists.
In Colorado, we have gone from a few lobbyists in the 1960's to many
hundreds. If our issue and a private special interest lobbyist's issue
is the same, take a back seat and let the private special interest
lobbyist do the heavy work. You be the information source.
The reason is that the legislature expects rough battles with private
special interest lobbyists, but they get upset when the executive branch
tries to be the heavy.
However, there are times when the governor wants something and you have
to do it. If instead of being the lobbyist, you are the executive
manager, the in-house lobbyist you choose from your department had
better be as professional as those representing private groups.
A good bureaucrat is not necessarily a good lobbyist.
The lobbyist you use is your face to many legislators. Your ability to
keep the same person on the payroll for many years helps you build up
the rapport with legislators. Be sure to get feedback from many sources
as to how they view your in-house lobbyist.
Rule No. 4: Don't go overboard on any particular issue. If your bill is
stalled in House Appropriations, think twice before trying to force it
out, There is always next session.
Usually it is not a matter of all or nothing. Usually it is a question
of how much of a bill or an issue you can get under the circumstances.
If you expect a legislator to compromise on his or her issue, why should
you be any different? If there is something you want but can't get
because too many legislators oppose it, take what you can get. Your
office will be around for some time, but the legislative turnover is
After voting several thousand times in a session, I have often forgotten
why I voted a particular way the previous year. Next session you try
again and add a little more to what you had already obtained.
The bureaucracy always outlasts the legislature or the governor. If you
don't believe me, ask Genghis Khan about the Chinese civil service.
Rule No. 5: Avoid making enemies, because the legislator you oppose may
be the one you need to help you on the next issue. Or, at least, avoid
making unnecessary enemies.
Think your position through. What are the consequences of the
confrontation? If you are opposing a Senator's pet project, is it really
that devastating when weighed against his or her ability to cut off
funding for an important program you want?
Can you win in a less obtrusive manner by getting his or her bill stuck
in finance committee when your department reports that it will cost "X"
number of dollars to fund? Or can you get help from a legislator who is
an opponent of your opponent?
If you have to take a legislator on directly, let the legislator know in
advance, and the reasons why. There is almost always a possible
Rule No. 6: Never surprise a legislator by making your objections known
for the first time at a committee hearing. I have seen legislators
almost apoplectic when that happens, and you have made an enemy for
life. Sooner or later that legislator will take revenge, even if support
of an issue would have helped their constituents. For some legislators,
revenge is the sweetest dessert.
Rule No. 7: Always remember the legislature is not a level playing
field. When you send your staff members over to testify before a
legislative committee, be sure they remember: Never be confrontational
at legislative hearings.
You don't make points by showing how stupid a particular legislator is.
Always choose someone to speak who maintains a modulated tone of voice,
who doesn't shout. Legislators like to shout at you or each other, but
get upset if you do that to them.
Lobbyists who choose witnesses should realize the best witnesses are not
necessarily the best experts. If you can present your support or
opposition in a conversational tone, do it. Your statement doesn't have
to be dull. There can be a display of emotion within bounds, just don't
overpower your listeners.
Don't exaggerate your testimony Never tell a lie or give half the truth,
even if the full truth is adverse to your position. You really have
nothing going for you as a member of the executive branch except your
If you lose that, if you are caught in a lie, then get another job,
because in Colorado you are dead in the water.
(Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the house)