Jerry Kopel

Rules for Executive Branch Lobbying

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 assistance.

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 enormous.

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 compromise.

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 credibility.

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)

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