The Ins, Outs, and Affects of Lobbying in the Oregon Legislature

by Lizzy Atwood Wills

Lobbying is sometimes known as the “third house”. There are the two chambers in a legislature—the Senate and the House—and then there’s the lobby. Within the three branches of U.S. government, lobbyists play an influential role, and while they probably wish they could affect the judicial branch, they have a huge impact on both the executive and legislative branches’ decision-making processes. Most often though, lobbyists affect the legislative process, and are most well known for their work in the legislature. As long as the United States has a democracy with a legislative process, lobbyists will advocate for their own (or their clients’) interests. What would a democracy be without lobbyists though? If an everyday citizen wasn’t able to march into her state legislator’s office and tell them how she feels, would our democracy really be about the people? Could the Oregon Legislature really claim to be a “citizen” legislature? The aim of this paper is to explain how and why the lobby plays such an influential role in our state legislature, and moreover, how the lobby motivates a democratic balance in politics. Through examples of current legislation, and the experiences of lobbyists currently working with the legislature, this paper will also explain the strategies and roles a lobbyist utilizes to both support and stop every piece of legislation (of which there is over 2,500 in 2015 alone) that makes its way through the Oregon Legislature.

Theoretically, the process would not be democratic and the Oregon Legislature could not claim to be a citizen legislature if a person was denied their chance to express their opinions to their elected officials. In reality, constituents don’t often march into an office demanding answers, but political discourse is had every day between elected officials, and all others who choose to participate. So how is a lobbyist much different than that constituent? How does a lobbyist differ from any other person wants to get their voice heard? Well, to begin with, a lobbyist is paid, and often they are paid well. But there is general agreement that lobbyists represent much more than an average constituent, and lobbyists are often much larger stakeholders in the legislative process than one might expect. As a representative of a stakeholder, be it a group or an individual, a lobbyist often represents many clients that have varying interests. Many lobbyists represent contractors, and dentists, and wine growers all in one go. Typically, these interests aren’t going to compete with each other when it comes to laws being made, so it’s safe to have a wide swath of clients.

According to Merriam Webster, lobbying is, ”to try to influence government officials to make decisions for or against something”.[1] But really, anyone can use lobbying as a tool for persuasion. A child lobbies his mother when he wants more cookies, because he ate his dinner. A rebellious teenager lobbies his friends to get them to try cigarettes because it’s cool. An employee lobbies their boss when it’s time for a raise.  And lobbyists lobby elected officials to work on, and vote for, their client’s issues. Simply put, lobbying can be used as a form of persuasion by using a combination of logic, facts and their personal interests.

TYPES OF LOBBYING

There are many different interest groups that represent a diverse group of interests that affect the Oregon Legislature’s decisions. Russ Dundero and William Lunch argue that there are 5 types of interest groups. These interest groups include, but are not limited to, economically motivated groups like AFL-CIO, professionally motivated groups which represent doctors and teachers, public interest groups including the Sierra Club or ACLU, ideological groups like the Oregon Citizen’s Alliance, and government agencies which consist of the League of Oregon Cities or the Department of Environmental Quality.[2]

James Deakin wrote about interest groups, “There is an association, union, society, league, conference, institute, organization, federation, chamber, foundation, congress, order, brotherhood, company, corporation, bureau, mutual cooperative, committee, council, plan, trusteeship, movement, district, assembly, club board, service or tribe for every human need, desire, motive, ambition, goal, aim, drive, affiliation, occupation, industry, interest, incentive, fear, anxiety, greed, compulsion, frustration, hate, spirit, reform and cussedness in the United States”.[3] In other words, there are a lot of interest groups who represent an even larger swath of interests in the lobbying world. In one way or another, every single person in the United States is represented by a lobbying group, based on identity or personal interests, regardless of whether they know it or not. Individuals are also affected by decisions made by lobbyists and legislators alike, which is why there is so much importance in being a civically engaged citizen, but that’s a story for a different day. According to Russ Dondero and William Lunch,Most Oregonians have a place at the table in the Oregon Legislature, but that does not mean all are equally represented in Salem. The most influential groups have 1) full-time paid lobbyists in the capitol; 2) political action committees that contribute to election campaigns; 3) a constituency that will mobilize quickly to pressure legislators; and 4) interests that can be addressed within the limitations of the legislature.”[4]

A stereotypical lobbyist (ones portrayed in movies and in the media) would be someone who either owns their own firm, or works for a firm who has a large clientele. These lobbyists track legislation that could affect their clients, and work to create new legislation to benefit their clients, typically using a style called “direct lobbying”.  They are the eyes and ears for their firm, their political interests, for their legislative allies, and certainly for their legislative competition. Keep your friends close, and your enemies closer, right? According to Alan Rosenthal, there are 6 ways to be a successful direct lobbyist.

  1. “Be there: To be around all the time means being first to know about what is happening and who is up to what.” This visibility is important because things happen so quickly in the Legislature. Often lobbyists who care about an issue a legislator is working on, will stop by their office at least once a day. They lurk outside hearing rooms, and take advantage of “walking and talking”. This signals to a legislator that the lobbyist can handle the fast paced environment, and that they are reliable.
  2. “Stay with it: The persistent, single-minded lobbyist has the best chance of winning.” Becoming an expert that a legislator can trust on any given issue is an invaluable position to be in for a lobbyist. Legislators have a million and one things to do, and minimizing that workload by being able a to ask a lobbyist for talking points or research ultimately helps reach the shared end goal.
  3. “Be brief: ‘Lobbyists need to explain succinctly what a bill does and doesn’t do’”. Again, legislators have very little time, and lobbyists have even less of a chance to access it, being one of many people who want to talk to legislators. However, the point of the conversation needs to get right to the point. Legislators respect people who respect their time.
  4. “Take nothing for granted: If there is no organized opposition, a lobbyist’s bill will pass—except when it doesn’t.” Many new lobbyists learn this lesson the hard way. If a bill is a priority to a legislator, attention will be given to a bill even after the governor has signed it, because of all the people involved in the process, ranging from personal staff, to committee administrators, to lobbyists. However, if a bill seems like an obvious choice, it can easily fall by the wayside, and may just get caught up in a simple part of the process. Every bill is a delicate flower and needs to be treated like one.
  5. “It is necessary to choose: A contract lobbyist from Utah told the Pharmeceutical Research and Manufacturers of America: ‘You can only go to the well so many times in one session’”. For this reason, lobbyists and legislators alike set priorities. Lobbyists ask their clients to give them their top 3 priorities for what they’d like out of the legislative session—be it money or specific policy change (or lack of change). The lobbyists then take advantage of the current political climate to try to reach those goals. Sometimes that means working for a whole session on one issue, or sometimes that means taking small bites out of the pie to get smaller wins. It all comes down to timing, and the more competitive resource—money.
  6. “Be prepared to lose: No one involved in the process can expect to have his or her way all the time”. Mainly, this is the reason lobbyists set priorities with their clients. There is only so much pie for everyone to take, and they have to decide what’s most important to them. They also have to decide what they’d be willing to let go of, or try again at a different time. [5]

Kate Newhall, who works as a direct lobbyist at a firm called Focus Point Communications, represents a wide range of clients, including Family Forward, for whom she is working on paid sick time legislation this session.  Kate employs many of the strategies above, with her own personal twists, which have proven relatively successful for her. She spends about 90% of her time either working to stop bills from moving forward, or making changes to legislation that will benefit and/or not affect her clients. She often testifies on issues of importance, and follows bills closely all the way through the process by working with not only legislators and their staff, but also committee administrators and legislative counsel (folks in the process who are often overlooked and under-estimated). Kate knows the ins and outs of the legislative process, and uses those connections to navigate her way through the process. In her role, Kate also sometimes writes the idea that becomes a bill based on her client’s priorities.

However, there are also plenty of non-profit organizations that are run by boards of directors or by members who make up legislative priorities. These groups often organize around issues that are current in the media, and are popular ideas for reform.  SB 894, a comprehensive women’s health bill, was introduced by Planned Parenthood advocates this session.[6] This bill creates an interesting dynamic for lobbying, where lobbyists are the main force behind the bill, but the issues in the bill align with a coalition of women legislators, known as the Oregon Women’s Health and Wellness Alliance. Together with NARAL Pro Choice Oregon, these groups will work together to pass legislation that tackles women health issues, ranging from abortion services, birth control, and pre and post-natal care. Planned Parenthood and NARAL used their connection to women, and women’s health issues, to collaborate with a very strong group of women legislators in the Oregon Legislature in order to reach mutually beneficial outcome. Planned Parenthood also utilized other forms of lobbying, including sending mass e-mails to all legislators from their constituents, organizing press conferences, and convening work groups to gain attention and support. Coalition lobbying often looks like this, where advocates work to organize constituents and push for one specific issue until it’s resolved, and once the “end-goal” is reached, the coalition itself dissolves. However, as Alan Rosenthal concisely puts it, “The downside of a coalition is that each individual member forgoes control…do not spend valuable time trying to keep a diverse organization in tow”.[7]  SB 894 is a great example of a coalition with a strong and similar set of values. However, the bill never made it out of committee. The bill’s failure is for a variety of reasons, especially the fact that anything to do with abortion will create great amounts of negative attention on the bill. However, with the current democratic majority in the Oregon Legislature, this may shine a light on a different reason for the lack of movement on a progressive bill—the coalition. It’s possible that the coalition may have been too big for it’s own good, with too many cooks in the kitchen. In order to pass controversial legislation, a coalition needs to run a tight ship, with clear directions, and a plan for damage control. This is where this coalition may have lost track of its course, and ultimately, lost the chance to pass a comprehensive women’s health bill.

Another group who comes up with legislative priorities to bring to the legislature is Children First for Oregon. Through their Board of Directors, they choose issues that they know are winnable in the legislature this session, issues they know they do not want to see pass, or issues that are felt widely and deeply by their constituency. Often there is overlap between these priorities, which can make it even easier to choose what is most important to the organization as a whole. James Barta, the lobbyist for CFFO, lobbies the legislature on a wide swath of issues ranging from foster youth, health care for children and families, and economic stability.  James lobbies for a constituency who more often than not, cannot lobby for themselves. This concept is generally intriguing, as many policies and laws are made for “people who cannot represent themselves”. Legislators often use this as a campaigning technique to win over women and young voters. Sometimes this strategy is also used in the debate about abortion, and in reference to animal welfare. James is working his first session as a lobbyist, but has used the connections he made a legislative aide to get ahead.

Similarly, Melissa Unger, the political organizer at SEIU, balances the desires and needs of the labor unions outside of the building, while understanding the political realities and limitations of the legislature. She both listens and reports to SEIU’s board of members and board of directors. SEIU, known as the Service Employees International Union, represents Health Care, Property Services, and Public Service Unions. Melissa sums up her job by saying that she “uses people outside the building to push people in the building”, and has used her many years of experience both in and outside of the building to create successful change.

Institutions often use lobbyists to make legislative progress, but have much stricter boundaries than the freedoms of coalitions, as they are technically public institutions, full of public employees. These lobbyists utilize “grassroots”, sometimes also known as “grass tops” organizing strategies. A community that organizes itself around an issue that directly affects them is often known to use grassroots lobbying techniques. More recently though, this style of lobbying has received a stereotype of being unorganized and unprofessional, which is only sometimes what grassroots lobbying looks like. Grass tops organizing however, is very similar in that the ideas come from a very specific constituency, and those constituents are organized by folks who are more familiar with the institutions and systems necessary to create change.  Grass tops lobbying looks like it happened organically from an outsiders perspective, but really was very carefully planned. These “organic looking” interactions are planned by lobbyists. These lobbyists utilize their long-standing relationships with legislators to make these days successful, and take advantage of fundraisers and fancy dinners to honor their legislators as special guests. Because educational institutions can’t make campaign contributions or participate on campaigns in any official capacity, they have to find other ways to engage with legislators to maintain friendly relationships. They also use well-organized lobby days to push their legislative agendas, all the while maintaining a relatively constant presence in the building.

PCC for example, has at least one lobby day per legislative session. The Board of Directors at PCC sets an agenda, which is communicated with the Government Relations office, and especially, the PCC lobbyist, who is currently Meghan Moyer. Meghan then takes that information and translates it into the limits and advantages within the confines of the Capitol walls. She then works to either follow bills closely that could affect PCC and it’s priorities, or to create legislation or budgetary asks of the legislature. Meghan recently organized the PCC lobby day at the Capitol, which typically happens once per session.

These days are full of fun—free food and t-shirts, often the mascots show up, there’s a luncheon where special guests are invited to speak, and tons of students come to visit their state capitol. Meghan sets up meetings with key legislators (and often as many as possible) to send a message that PCC is present, and needs the support of the legislature. There is often a number in millions for how much funding PCC will need that people spout off—“$550 million for community colleges this biennium!”. More so though, this day is used to remind legislators that real people, and some of our most important citizens are working hard to graduate and become a hard working future generation. These students tell their stories, albeit struggle or success, and legislators realize that PCC changes people’s lives. The lobby day ends with lots of pictures and thank you’s, and Meghan comes back the next day to make her rounds about how important PCC is, and works to solidify a solid $755 million for higher education. These lobby days, as much as they seem like a “horse and pony” show, can be incredibly effective in legislators’ prioritization of issues. However, organized lobby days aren’t the only way that citizens can use their voices to lobby for their priorities.

Just like the students at PCC, many citizens are engaged in the legislative process. Some only come to visit the State Capitol once, or make one phone call or e-mail, but it is the job of the legislator to listen. This creates a stage and a spotlight for folks who have something to say. Melissa Unger says that sometimes, it’s not about good policy, but about the loudest voice that determines the bills that become laws, and the ones that die trying.

Melissa uses SB 442 as an example– a bill that would exclude philosophical and religions exemptions as valid reasons for getting kids vaccinated, and only a medical condition would qualify for vaccine exemption.[8] Constituents from all across the state called, e-mailed and made meetings with their legislators expressing how strongly they felt about the government not having the right to force vaccinations on children. They complained of medical side affects from vaccines, including autism. They claimed that vaccines were full of rat poison and were potentially medically dangerous. Constituents from Ashland, Oregon, one of the most highly un-vaccinated towns in the world, complained to anyone who would listen. Citizens rallied together on the steps of the capitol, and protested this legislation. They brought their unvaccinated children to hearings where vulnerable children with leukemia and other deadly diseases testified in favor of the bill. The chief sponsor of this bill, a medical doctor and Senator from Northwest Portland, was harassed endlessly. Finally, she threw her hands up, and decided to publicly stop working on the issue. In this case, the loudest voice won, which was a resounding ‘No on SB 442’. This bill is a good example of how strong the voices of constituents are, and how much legislators are really forced to listen, and ultimately, comply.

CAMPAIGNS AND LOBBYISTS

For some lobbyists, campaign season is when they do their most important work. These lobbyists are ones who aren’t considered public employees, and do not represent public institutions. They are free to take their own stances as individuals, and as workers for their organizations. There are many ways in which the lobby influences election results. Often organizations will send their lobbyists or other employees that are more often seen by the elected officials to take part in campaigns, in order for them to build personal relationships with the candidates. And while many people think that these candidates are taking big pay outs or maybe even endorsements from their supportive organizations, experienced lobbyists know that it takes the personal touch to really get themselves in an advantageous position with electeds.

Unlike Meghan Moyer, who works within the boundaries of a public institution, and is therefor not allowed to work on campaigns in any official capacity, Melissa Unger of SEIU has had the opportunity to build long, lasting relationships in the legislature outside of the Capitol’s walls. She credits campaigning as one of the biggest reasons for being successful during the legislative session. More specifically, she knows that the real key is doing personal favors during campaign season, like knocking on doors, and helping out with trainings. Candidates not only notice and appreciate the help, Melissa suggests the actual camaraderie is what helps most. There may even be a feeling of indebtedness on the candidate’s side, and they certainly don’t forget about how they got elected when they start their work in the legislative session. Meanwhile, Craig Campbell, who works for his family firm, the Victory Group, and represents a swath of clients ranging from AAA to Outdoor Education Schools, personally hates campaign season. He maintains relationships with legislators in the interim by taking them to get coffee, and telling them about things that may be of importance as they move into legislative session. There are many different approaches lobbyists use to keeping the attention of legislators in the interim, and ultimately, it’s that the connections are made, the conversations are had, and the trust is built. It’s clear that many different things work, but lobbyists who get what they want during the legislative session, don’t just get to relax in the  “off” season.

 

CONCLUSION

Lobbyists in the Oregon Legislature play a necessary and influential role. Because of the sheer size of Oregon, for many average citizens, the State Capitol is out of reach. Although it’s in the “middle” of Oregon, there are hundreds of miles between Salem and many other parts of the state. For this reason, it’s important that there are lots of different lobbyists representing diverse needs for the people of the State of Oregon. Whether it be direct lobbying, in which lobbyists themselves research, track, and testify on legislation, or coalition lobbying, where the public is used to create priorities, or grassroots lobbying, where well-crafted lobby days are used to establish a need, all styles are important to hold the legislature accountable, and to create positive statewide change. Through these many styles of lobbying, the lobby holds elected officials accountable for their actions. They act as the bridge between citizens and elected officials, and take public and private actions to influence decision-making.

The democratic process is meant to be complicated in order to make it difficult to make change in general, but through this complication, ordinary citizens easily lose track of how it actually works, and the Legislature uses the rules to their advantage. A large part of the job of lobbyists is to maintain expectations from the public, while holding legislators accountable to what they say they will or won’t do. Without this bridge, the public would be much more disenfranchised, and legislators would too often take advantage of the lack of accountability. In the end, this accountability comes back to elections, where lobbyists also use their influence to support the “right” candidate, through organizing, donations, and advertising.

Ultimately, lobbyists do a job most people don’t want to do. There is a reason that voter turnout is never close to 100% of the voting population, and why people shy away from talking about politics in social settings. It’s messy, complicated, and there is a general feeling of apathy for government among citizens. Most people don’t feel like the government is on their side, but lobbyists work day and night to maintain accountability, transparency, and are often the pushing force behind necessary change in the legislature. If it weren’t for lobbyists, the Oregon Legislature would be that much farther out of touch from its constituents, and could be exceptionally more corrupt. Of course, it’s a double edged sword, and the lobby is not always acting with good intentions for the most people, but that’s exactly why the process is so complicated and hardly anyone holds enough power to make any change by themselves.  Such is democracy, and the lobby along with the legislature, play their necessary roles. Without both sides working together and sometimes actively against each other, the people of Oregon would be much worse off.

[1]  “Merriam Webster Dictionary”, Merriam-Webster, 2015, http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/lobby.

[2] Richard A. Clucas, Mark Henkels, Brent S. Steel, Oregon Politics and Government, (University of Nebraska: University of Nebraska Board of Regents, 2005) page 84.

3 Alan Rosenthal, The Third House,  (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc. 2001) page 2.

4 Richard A. Clucas, Mark Henkels, Brent S. Steel, Oregon Politics and Government, (University of Nebraska: University of Nebraska Board of Regents, 2005) page 83.

5 Alan Rosenthal, The Third House,  (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc. 2001) page 179-181.

6 Oregon State Legislature, “Oregon Legislative Information System” Oregon.gov, https://olis.leg.state.or.us/liz/2015R1/Measures/Overview/SB894.

7 Alan Rosenthal, The Third House,  (Washington, D.C.: Congressional Quarterly Inc. 2001) page 148.

[8] Oregon State Legislature, “Oregon Legislative Information System” Oregon.gov, https://olis.leg.state.or.us/liz/2015R1/Measures/Overview/SB442.

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