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.