Think Lobbying is a Waste of Time? Think Again

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According to Politico, the first year of the Trump administration saw a decline in lobbying spending from the first year of the Obama White House, and only a small increase over 2016.

Between the government shutdown, the failure to get anything done until the year-end tax bill, and ongoing partisan gridlock over everything from health care to immigration – not to mention the near-daily cacophony of chaos from the White House – the lobbying slowdown shouldn’t be a shock.

It’s also no surprise that the slow pace of action prompts many Washington-based interest groups to cut back their federal lobbying. Why spend precious time and money talking to Congress when nothing gets done?

Actually, maintaining a strong D.C. advocacy presence is a good idea, even in times of gridlock. In fact, it’s essential. Here’s why:

1. Stuff is happening. It may seem like Congress can’t get anything done, and it’s true that 2017 ended with health care, immigration, infrastructure and other issues stuck in neutral. But if you scratch below the surface, you’ll find that a lot is going on. In 2017, Congress passed and the President signed nearly 100 bills into law. While some were non-controversial post office namings and the like, others – like the massive annual defense authorization bill – have important policy implications. Just because it’s not on the front page doesn’t mean it’s not happening – and that it doesn’t affect you.

2. Congress isn’t the only game in town. Even if Congress is bollixed by gridlock, the Executive Branch– the alphabet soup of Cabinet departments and independent agencies – are writing regulations, issuing grants and putting out executive orders, all of which have big impacts on nearly everyone. In fact, the more gridlocked Congress becomes, the bolder the Executive Branch becomes. Since late December alone, the Trump administration has issued major rules on health care, trade, and the environment, just to name three. Even when Congress does pass legislation, it’s up to these agencies to interpret the law into practical rules. Ignore them at your own peril.

3. You can’t wait until it’s too late. It may seem like legislation develops at a snail’s pace. That often is true, which is why being a constant presence on Capitol Hill matters.  Effective advocacy requires being part of the discussion from the outset of the legislative process, when key principles are established, not just when the final text is almost fully baked. Congress passed tax reform at the end of 2017, but the process started back in 2012. Interest groups who ignored tax reform until last year were far less likely to find a receptive audience on Capitol Hill than those groups that were engaged from the beginning.

4. It’s all about the relationship. At its heart, effective lobbying demands trust: policymakers won’t listen to you unless they know you are serious, credible, and reliable – all of which takes time to demonstrate. Just as you’re more likely to take the advice of an old friend over a vague acquaintance, elected officials will more readily listen to people they know and trust. And building strong relationships with members of Congress takes time. The relationships you build today will lead to better outcomes tomorrow.

5. Information is power. Lobbying relationships are not a one-way street. Meeting with elected officials gives you the ability to learn first-hand what Congress and the administration are working on and where potential threats and opportunities to your issues lie. Not only that, but legislators are always looking for support for their policy ideas; listening to what they are working on and providing support (or at least feedback) is a great way to build stronger connections.

6. It’s not just about the bills. Members of Congress (and their staffs) do more than just pass legislation. They hold hearings to raise awareness about emerging issues. They write to Executive Branch agencies to spur action. They engage with state and local leaders back home to press your concerns. And, not surprisingly, they want to do these things, particularly when there’s not a lot going happening on the legislative side, because these actions show results, which make them look good. If you think they’re twiddling their legislative thumbs, then find new ways to engage them.

7. Your opponents aren’t taking a break. Every day, thousands of lobbyists and grassroots advocates are pressing their cases on Capitol Hill and with agencies – and their agendas probably aren’t the same as yours. In fact, they might be the diametric opposite. If members of Congress hear just one side of the story, once legislation moves it won’t be in your favor.

Lastly, even if you still think that lobbying is a waste of time, remember this:

8. It’s your job as an American. Lobbying your elected officials is the cornerstone of democracy and as American as apple pie. It’s so important that the Founding Fathers enshrined it in the First Amendment, right next to free speech, religion and assembly: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances.”

Lobbying isn’t just a constitutional right. It’s your responsibility as a citizen. At a time when democracy appears to be in retreat around the globe, exercising your right to tell our leaders what to do is an easy way to keep ours running strong.


Five Reasons Why a Shutdown Will Hurt the GOP (And One Why it Will Help)

closedYour faithful blogger has fond memories of the 1995 government shutdown: furloughed without pay, catching a matinée of Waterworld, wondering when/if the next paycheck would arrive. Like the inhabitants of Kevin Costner’s over-budget epic, Republicans and Democrats were at war with each other, and hopelessly lost at sea.

As Congress and the White House barrel towards another potential shutdown Friday at midnight, both sides are prepping their spin on why the other side will shoulder the blame. But history – and common sense – suggest that Republicans have the most to lose, in the short run, at least. Here’s why:

1. They control government. During the previous two shutdowns (1995 and 2013), a Democrat sat in the White House. This time the GOP controls both sides of Pennsylvania Avenue. It’s a lot easier to spread the blame when both parties have a finger on the button. And while it’s true that Senate Democrats can prevent a funding bill from getting 60 votes, the voters see the Republicans are ultimately in charge.

2. They are viewed as more hostile to government. Republicans make no secret of their desire to shrink government and criticize the size and scope of the federal footprint. In fact, some conservative commentators are making the argument that a shutdown will show the public how irrelevant Washington is to their lives. When you’re caught with the murder weapon and an MO, it’s hard to pin the blame on the other guy.

3. They are viewed as more hostile to compromise. Since the Tea Party wave of 2010, Congressional Republicans have shown their stubborn streak, dismissing compromise as a four-letter word and demonstrating an unwillingness to negotiate. Hell, they basically overthrew their last House Speaker because he wasn’t hard-line enough. Democrats, meanwhile, have a hard-won reputation as, let’s say, more ready to cave when the pressure is on. It may be true that the Democrats’ spines have been stiffened by pressure from DACA supporters, but the take-no-prisoners reputation the GOP has cultivated over recent years will be hard to overcome.

4. They always get blamed. Republicans tried the “See? We don’t need government!” tack before, and it failed. Miserably. In both 1995 and 2013, images of shuttered national parks turned the public sharply against the party they believed was behind the shutdown. Although Republicans will attempt to pin the blame for a shutdown this time on Democrats’ demands for a resolution of DACA, old perceptions tend to stick.

5. The President is unpopular. Gallup currently pegs Donald Trump’s approval rating at 39 percent. Numbers as low as those create a sort of reverse Midas touch, making everything the White House touches turn sour. It will be hard to convince voters that a President they dislike is the good guy in a prolonged shutdown battle.

In short, a combination of history, reputation, and precedent all suggest that Republicans would get more of the blame for a shutdown if it takes place. Then why go through with it?

Besides their Lucy-won’t-yank-the-football-away-this-time cockeyed optimism that Republicans show every time the possibility of a shutdown rolls around, there is another reason conservatives may be hungering for the government to close: Shutdowns reduce public trust in government. And if you want a smaller government, gaining broad support for the notion that government is incompetent is a good way to go.

As P.J. O’Rourke once said, “The Republicans are the party that says government doesn’t work and then they get elected and prove it.” A third government shutdown in 20 years reinforces the notion that Washington is dysfunctional and out-of-touch. Despite the short-term political fallout, that perception is a long-term win for those who want a smaller government.

Of course, a shutdown is not inevitable. Both sides could finds a way to avoid this fiscal cliff and pass a short-term continuing resolution. But even then, all they do is delay a crisis to another day.

So buckle up. Find Waterworld on Amazon. And get ready to party like it’s 1995.


A Watershed Moment for Renewables?

solar2Despite the Trump administration’s hostility towards renewable energy, momentum is increasingly on its side.

Last week, the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission unanimously rejected a plan from Energy Secretary Rick Perry to subsidize struggling coal and nuclear plants, giving them a competitive advantage over other sources of energy.

DOE’s proposal argued that recent natural disasters and extreme weather events exposed threats to the nation’s electric grid that need to be addressed by allowing coal and nuclear plants to “[recover] fully allocated costs and thereby continue to provide the energy security on which our nation relies.” In essence, Perry’s department argued that ensuring the reliability of the electrical grid demands letting coal and nuclear plants charge more for power, helping them stay on line.

Putting aside for a moment the irony that dependence on coal and other fossil fuels increases greenhouse gases, which in turn makes extreme weather events more extreme, the plan was viewed by many energy experts as a blatant effort to give the struggling coal industry a leg up over natural gas and renewables. As the Washington Post noted:

The plan, however, was widely seen as an effort to alter the balance of competitive electricity markets that federal regulators have been cultivating since the late 1980s. Critics said it would have largely helped a handful of coal and nuclear companies, including the utility FirstEnergy and coal-mining firm Murray Energy, while raising rates for consumers.

Surprisingly, that view was apparently shared by the FERC – including four members appointed by President Trump – which rejected the proposal, opting instead to maintain competition in energy markets.

It’s no secret that President Trump wants to help coal country; during the 2016 campaign he promised to bring coal jobs back. The fact that DOE’s plan to achieve this was so roundly rejected by the FERC shows how hard it will be for Trump to keep that promise. If Perry’s proposal was Plan A, Plan B must not be any more realistic. The fact is, if coal cannot remain competitive in electricity markets without artificial government subsidies, its path forward is bleak.

Meanwhile, the cost of renewables continues to decline. The Natural Resources Defense Council reports that the costs of wind and solar projects in the western U.S. are so low that that

. . . it is cheaper to build a new wind or solar project than to operate most existing coal plants in the West. It’s also significantly cheaper than the cost of a new gas plant, often considered the most significant competitor of coal, and renewables provide long-term price stability that gas plants don’t.

At the same time, elected officials increasingly are seeing the policy and political benefits of talking up renewables. This month, New York Governor (and possible 2020 Democratic Presidential contender) Andrew Cuomo announced his “2018 Clean Energy Jobs and Climate Agenda,”  which seeks to end the use of coal in the state’s power plants by 2020 while expanding renewable energy through wind and solar investments and “clean energy” workforce development.

In other words, while President Trump is feverishly working to save jobs in the coal industry, New York is looking to create jobs in renewables. It’s as if in the early 1800s the federal government tried to prop up canal building while the railroads were taking over.

None of this is to suggest that it’s smooth sailing for renewables: White House budget proposals continue to go after clean energy programs, and EPA Administrator Scott Pruitt is continuing his crusade to undermine climate regulations. And around the world, far too much carbon is being spewed into the atmosphere. But the tide is turning.

Opponents of federal investments in clean energy have always argued that policymakers should let the market work. Hopefully they won’t abandon that principle when the fossil fuel industry comes knocking.

The Real Consequences of “Shithole”


To the surprise of absolutely nobody, President Trump expressed his true feelings about much of the developing world yesterday, asking a bipartisan group of lawmakers, “Why do we want all these people from shithole countries coming here?”

The consequences of the President’s comments are many: the further degradation of our civic discourse. The confirmation (as if we need more) that the 45th President of the United States is racist. The fate Wolf Blitzer’s epic struggles to avoid saying “shithole” on live TV.

But to understand the biggest impact to the country – and the world – of Trump’s behavior, consider this factoid: Xi Jinping, China’s president, has never called other countries “shitholes.”

The U.S. and China are locked in a competition for global influence. And since Donald Trump’s inauguration, China has won the upper hand: Trump withdrew the U.S. from the Trans-Pacific Partnership trade agreement, which was designed in part as a bulwark against China’s economic influence. He withdrew from the Paris climate agreement, enabling China to bolster its leadership image as a climate protector.

Meanwhile, as China looks to invest a trillion dollars in its “One Belt, One Road” plan to extend its trading prowess into nearly 60 countries, the Trump administration threatens to tear up more trade agreements and dithers on a domestic infrastructure package.

And now Trump’s latest comments. If you are a developing nation looking to forge alliances, economic and otherwise, with a global superpower, which do you choose: the nation that is investing heavily in trade infrastructure with a market of nearly 1.4 billion people? Or the one whose leader calls your homeland a shithole?

One nation is offering stable investment backed by long-term planning. The other offers insults. Particularly for leaders in democratic (or semi-democratic) nations, there is absolutely no political upside to aligning yourself with the United States as long as Donald Trump is in the White House.

A single insult from Donald Trump won’t shift the global economic order. But for the next three years, at least, developing nations looking to build alliances and markets are going to think twice about partnering with a country whose leader who demonstrates such contempt for their people.

Talking ≠ Governing


Two events this week suggest that the next president of the United States will have an incredibly low bar to meet to be a success. The reactions to them suggest that a lot of folks are ok with that. And that’s a problem.

Let’s review: on Sunday night, Oprah Winfrey gave a (genuinely) inspiring speech at the Golden Globe awards. Then, on Tuesday, President Trump allowed the media to televise his hour-long meeting with bipartisan leaders of Congress to discuss immigration and other matters.

The reactions from the press and others was near-rapturous: the Oprah 2020 bandwagon short into hyper speed. People started parsing her every utterance about clues to her policy inclinations. Lots of observers argued that, if you’re going to have a celebrity as president, why not someone who can inspire? As CNN’s Chris Cillizza noted, “You could close your eyes and imagine that speech being given in Iowa, let’s say, or as a campaign kickoff.”

Meanwhile, the Trump meeting/press gaggle was must-see TV on the cable networks. Clearly intended by the White House to prove that the President is not, as Michael Wolff’s book suggests, an unstable moron, the stunt appeared to (mostly) do the trick. For a day, the public discussion about Trump was not about his daily work habits or stream-of-consciousness tweeting. With two Democratic leaders cleverly seated on each arm, Donald Trump looked, well, like he belonged there. Pundit Michael Medved tweeted that “the session today should end all talk (for now, at least) that he’s not ‘mentally fit’ for the job. Today, he looks unequivocally presidential.”

So there you have it: for the 46th president to succeed, he or she needs to give rousing speeches and hold meetings without throwing food at people like a colobus monkey. In other words, the president needs to look and sound the part.

The problem is, there is a hell of a lot to the job that a good speech or meeting doesn’t show.

In many ways, politics is like other professions: if you don’t do it every day, it looks a lot more glamorous than it really is. Most lawyers would tell you that the reality of lawyering is not what you see on Boston Legal: a lot less confronting witnesses in tense courtrooms and a lot more poring over case law and endless depositions. Doctors don’t spend the bulk of their time straddling patients on gurneys in the ER, performing tracheotomies with a pen as the blood gushes everywhere. (If you’ve ever had a rectal exam, remember that it’s not much fun on the giving end, either.)

Being a successful president demands a set of skills and a temperament that the cameras don’t capture. For starters, you need a good understanding of policy. Although it’s Congress’ job to write the bills, the president isn’t there just to sign them. Presidents need to be able to get on the phone with members of Congress and make the case for their agenda. And since lawmakers get to specialize in certain issues through the committee system, presidents need to know enough about a wide array of issues to hold their side of the argument. Presidents need to understand the intricacies of legislating, knowing, for example, that when a Senator asks you to support a “clean DACA” bill, she means a bill that does not include funding for a border wall. If you can’t figure these things out, the legislators will win every time, advancing policies that won’t look like yours.

Presidents also need to make sure their public pronouncements don’t undermine their bargaining positions. No member of Congress wants to back politically sensitive legislation if they think that the president will change his mind and leave you isolated. That requires having the discipline to stick to a position, even when you hear all the voices on the other side pushing you in the other direction with well-thought points. Without a clear sense of where you stand and why, every argument will sound convincing. And if you get a reputation of telling one side one thing in private and something else to their opponents, nobody is going to listen to you.

Don’t presidents have policy advisors to help them navigate the intricacies of legislation? Yes, but its’ not their name on the door of the Oval Office. When a vote is on the line, a recalcitrant Senator does not want to hear from a White House staffer. Putting the full weight of the presidency on the phone can do wonders for twisting arms. And since it’s not uncommon for advisers to disagree with each other, the president has to make the final call, which can be even more difficult when some advisors have hidden agendas of their own.

More than that, presidents need the temperament and discipline to make calls on issues that pop up out of nowhere, with at times limited information. Does North Korea really have the capability to launch a nuclear strike on the mainland U.S.? If the U.S. comes out in support of the Iranian protesters, will that help, or will it raise expectations of support America can’t possibly fulfill? Meanwhile, there are nearly 200 other nations and international alliances looking for guidance – and asking for favors – from the U.S. If Angela Merkel calls to discuss Syria, she doesn’t want to hear a speech or be a prop in a photo op.

Now, there’s nothing wrong with good optics; part of the president’s role is to rally the public, use the bully pulpit, demonstrate the power and prestige of the office through Rose Garden ceremonies, State of the Union addresses and the like. All that matters.

And there is nothing wrong, in of itself, with political neophytes running for office. To be perfectly fair to Oprah, she may very well have the skills and temperament to be a good, or even great, president (and she hasn’t even said she’s running).

But if there is a lesson to be learned from the Trump Era, it is that politics is a discipline, and like, being a doctor or lawyer, success demands a lot more than what you see on TV. Perhaps had someone informed Mr. Trump back in 2015 that life as Commander-in-Chief is a lot less glamorous (and a lot harder) than what it looked like in Air Force One, it’s entirely possible that right now he’d be spending lots of time playing golf at Mar-a-Lago, watching Fox and Friends and tweeting insults at Hillary Clinton (in other words, the same as now, but without the nuclear button).

The real danger comes not from celebrities and other political neophytes running for office. After all, anybody can run for president if they meet the qualifications in the Constitution. And having prior government experience is pointedly not one of those requirements. Rather, the danger is that the voting public makes choices based on superficiality.

Imagine a scenario where the President is little more than a figurehead, with no capacity to make tough decisions, leaving those decisions to unelected (and unvetted) advisers. Or worse, a President who knows little but thinks he does, making fact-free and poorly thought-out pronouncements that divide the country and reduce faith in government.

We can probably survive one of those, but not another.

Six Reasons Congress (Probably) Won’t Do Much This Year

capitol_usa_washington_dc_sunrise_national_mall_city_landmark_parliament-1371061As Congress comes back to town to start its 2018 session, the to-do list is long: preventing a government shutdown, dealing with the expired Children’s Health Insurance Program, renewing the foreign surveillance program, doing something on Dreamers (and maybe the border wall), disaster relief, and a few more.

Republican leaders have placed even more big items on their wish list: entitlement reform, infrastructure funding, welfare reform, amending Dodd-Frank, and taking another stab at Obamacare repeal are all being bandied about as follow-ups to their success on taxes.

But the odds of Congress accomplishing much before the midterms is pretty slim. Here are six reasons why:

1. Republicans aren’t on the same page. If there are two issues on which virtually all Republican lawmakers could agree, it’s cutting taxes and repealing Obamacare. They accomplished the first at the end of 2017, but failed mightily at the second (although they did manage to repeal the individual mandate in the tax bill). Beyond those two issues, what else unites Republicans as much?

Immigration reform is a top priority, but one that exposes severe cracks in the GOP coalition between those who want more border security and nothing that even remotely looks like amnesty, and those who support a more nuanced approach. Entitlement reform? In theory yes, but the political challenges make many GOPers queasy. Even energy issues have lost urgency since the pro-production crowd got drilling in the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge into the tax bill.

Simply put, there is no other issue for which Republicans can be counted on to put aside their differences and political queasiness like taxes and Obamacare. And as 2017 showed, neither of them was easy. The fact that House Speaker Paul Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell are not on the same page about entitlement reform and welfare further shows that, with taxes behind them, Republicans don’t have a unifying agenda.

2. Republicans will need Democrats. Republicans were able to muscle tax reform through (and nearly repeal Obamacare) thanks to the reconciliation process, which enabled them to advance both with a minimum of 50 votes (and the Veep’s tie-breaking vote). But under budget rules, they can’t use reconciliation again this fiscal year. Without it (and with a 51-49 seat majority) they will need the support of at least nine Senate Democrats on any major item they bring up.

This means major items like entitlement reform and welfare reform – where there are stark differences between the parties – will be hard, if not impossible, to enact. True, there are exactly nine Democrats up for re-election in 2018 in states that voted for Donald Trump in 2016. But the odds of Sherrod Brown (D-OH), Bob Casey (R-PA), or Tammy Baldwin (D-WI), to name three Democratic Senators facing the voters in November, supporting entitlement cuts are basically zero. And in any event . . .

3. Both parties need to energize their bases. Midterm elections are typically won or lost on which party best energizes and turns out its base. After a year in which Republicans kept Democrats out of the discussions on health care and taxes (see reconciliation, above), and with the possibility of taking back one or more chambers in the 2018 midterms, Democrats have no incentive to play ball with the Republican majority. The more Democrats draw stark differences between them and Republicans, the more energize their base will become.

On the GOP side, with 2017 elections showing flagging enthusiasm, there is little incentive for Republicans to compromise, either. Their political calculus will be, the more base-pleasing their proposals are, the more likely their voters will come out – especially if they can paint Democrats as obstructionists. Although there are a number of House Republicans from blue states like New York and California who will want bipartisanship on issues like immigration and the environment, they don’t control the agenda.

4. Legislative success doesn’t portend electoral success. A lot of ink was spilled in 2017 on Republicans’ desperation to get something big passed; had tax reform failed, a lot of observers would have chiseled their political obituary in stone. That would seem to indicate that Republicans will crave more legislative success to ensure they keep their majorities.

But history has shown that big policy success doesn’t lead to election wins – especially if those wins piss off the other side. Leading up to the 1994 midterms, the first with Bill Clinton in the White House, Democrats had scored big victories on gun control and deficit reduction; they ended up losing both chambers. In 2010, two years into Barack Obama’s first term, Democrats boasted of passing Obamacare, stimulus, and Dodd-Frank. They lost the House and nearly lost the Senate.

In fact, the only recent example of a party in the White House gaining seats in their first midterm was in 2002, when Republicans took back the Senate two years into George W.  Bush’s first term. That was due in no small part to the post-9/11 political landscape. But beyond that, the only major legislative achievement Republicans could boast of was . . . a major tax cut. With that history, Republicans may be less motivated to expend political capital on controversial issues that won’t help them at the polls.

5. The must-dos will suck up time. Even if Congress and the White House can finally approve this month appropriations bills for the remainder of the current fiscal year (and that’s looking iffy, since discussions have barely begun), they will find themselves forced to address a host of simmering issues, from the Dreamers to stabilizing the Obamacare insurance markets. Republicans would love to see these wrapped up into larger reforms of immigration and health care, but for all the reasons stated earlier big packages will be mightily tough.

With only 108 scheduled legislative days in the House before the election and a similar number in the Senate, those must-dos will eat up a lot of time. And that’s not even counting unexpected must-dos, like confirmations of Cabinet secretaries in case any leave (has anyone heard from Rex Tillerson lately?).

6. The Executive Branch is not exactly helping. Presidents play a major role in shepherding policy through Congress: using the bully pulpit to drive consistent messages that dominate the news cycle, offering serious policy proposals and putting forth consistent redlines on what they will sign or veto, cajoling or intimidating members of Congress.

Unless you’ve been hiding out on Ahch-to the past year, you’ve  noticed that the White House has not been a study in message discipline, policy seriousness or effective lawmaker-wooing. Most accounts suggest that President Trump’s major role in passing tax reform was in staying the hell out of the way. Unless the President was right when he claimed he understood the “big bills” better than any of his predecessors, Congress is going to have to do it while ignoring the simmering dumpster fire down Pennsylvania Avenue.

As a result, beyond its must-dos, the odds of Congress and the White House achieving any significant policy goals is pretty slim. The one caveat to all of this: if Republicans hang onto their majorities in November election, it is quite possible that a lame-duck session could yield some significant action.

On the other hand, if Robert Mueller concludes his investigation right around then, everything will go out the window.

Welcome to 2018!