Coalition Lobbying in the Oregon Legislature

by Eric Noll

Oregon lobbyists exhibit an important role in the state’s legislative process. Literature exists examining the effect of lobbying on the legislative process, the roles that lobbyists play with certain issues or pieces of legislation, financial relationships of lobbyists and legislators, and strategies of lobbyists, among other aspects. Understanding the role and mechanism of lobbying in the legislative process may help the public better understand the employment of lobbyists and the implications of their work on the daily lives of Oregonians. Within the context of literature and the necessity to understand the role of lobbying an intriguing aspect is how lobbyists work together, in coalition, to achieve common and compromised objectives. The rest of this piece will focus on coalitions through an overview of the role of lobbyists with an analysis of coalition formation among lobbyists and the specific roles lobbyists engage in while in coalition with other interest groups or legislators. The goal is to provide greater insight into the process of coalition formation and its subsequent aspects through literature review and observation of the 2015 Legislative Session.

“To be effective, rational group leaders must choose strategies that enhance their chances for advocacy success.”[1] Literature suggests “…that joining a coalition with other organized interests would be an attractive option in a diverse crowded environment…”[2]  With increased and competing interests on legislative budget and policy decisions a lobbyist must find advantages to advance the interest of their client or organization. Coalition work is a common strategy to aggregate success between interest groups and their lobbyists with common missions or similar outcomes. As one expert describes, “a coalition consists of more than only sending the same message at the same moment to policymakers. It can, for example, include the exchange of resources and information or the coordination of advocacy efforts. Forging alliances can be a decisive lobbying strategy, on that make the difference between failure and success.”[3] Another expert more simply and broadly characterizes a coalition as “…a loose collection of organizations that cooperates to accomplish common objectives.”[4] Definition aside, lobbyists and their interest groups are increasingly turning to coalition work as a means of legislative success. The increase in coalition work in state legislatures, such as Oregon’s, may result from the larger numbers of interests active in the legislative process. “The sheer number of groups active in Salem forces lobbyists to build coalitions on issues of mutual interest.”[5] As will be described in further detail, the incentive for interest groups to join coalitions may be different depending on the type of interest group and the role their lobbyist plays in the coalition.

Categories and Roles of Interest Groups and Lobbyists

Interest groups often hire lobbyists to work on their behalf in the State Capitol and serve as a direct line between the interests of their members or clients and the legislative process. Economically motivated groups, professionally motivated groups, public interest groups, idealogical groups and government agencies are the five types of interest groups that typically lobby the Oregon legislature.[6] Each of these types of interest groups work on a different set of issues. Some are oriented to work on budget appropriations, some groups work on smaller and specific policy aimed to benefit their client’s practice, and others work on high profile social issues, just to name a few. This is by no means an exhaustive summation of the orientations of interest groups. For example, government agencies, like the Higher Education Coordinating Commission, do not usually have positions on policy issues due to their publicly funded natures. However, the HECC still has a lobbyist working with other interest groups and legislators on policy relevant to the Commission and Oregon’s public community colleges and universities. More often than not, a HECC representatives is asked, either in a legislator’s office or during a public hearing to serve as a topical expert and provide an objective evaluation of a budget or policy proposal. The classification of an interest group, in addition to directing the work of its lobbyist, is also an important factor in the formation of a coalition.

Lobbyists take on different roles depending on the type of interest group they are employed by or contracted with. Given the variety of interest groups in existence, the lobbyists representing them serve in a variety of roles and to different degrees. Lobbyists, at any given time, work as the eyes and ears of the public, information providers, representatives of their clients and constituents, shapers of the government agenda, movers of legislation, campaign contributes and coalition builders.[7] Just as the type of interest group affects the operation of a coalition, so do does the work of a lobbyist who may emphasize in some of these areas more than others. A lobbyist working for a large campaign contributor will have a larger focus in that role and work with legislators differently than a lobbyist representing an organization with a large membership that does not make campaign contributions but focuses on grassroots organizing. Both lobbyists can use their different roles to contribute to a common agenda and have access to a larger variety of legislators when working on a single policy priority. In addition to the roles lobbyists hold, it is equally important to understand the different classifications of who they represent, as this also plays a factor in coalition work.

The work of lobbyists vary greatly from each other and even on a day to day basis. Alan Rosenthal, an expert on state legislatures, discusses two primary classifications of lobbyists: independent or contract lobbyists and in-house lobbyists.[8] The first type of lobbyist typically works for a company or firm that procures contracts for government relations and legislative work and a single lobbyist from the firm is likely representing multiple clients. The second type of lobbyist is employed by a single organization with a government relations department or a legislative advocacy focus and represents a single interest and membership base.[9] Observers of the Oregon Legislature will see in-house lobbyists as a much greater presence in the daily activities of the legislature, though both are very present. The observation exists because in-house lobbyists tend to work on social and advocacy policy issues that are more visible to the general public and there are simply greater numbers of them. Independent or contract lobbyists typically work on budgets and/or legislation that affects the bottom line of the client or works to give their client a competitive advantage. The differences between these two generalized categories of lobbyists are an important component of shaping their role in coalition work.

A specific and important role of lobbyists that shape their roles in coalition work is that of conveying information and serving as educators to legislative offices. With the growing scope of issues the Oregon legislative assembly seeks to address annually, it is unreasonable to expect legislators to be experts in every bill, concept or idea that comes to their office. This is where lobbyists, arguably, serve their most important role as a specialist and educator in the topical area they represent. Legislators trust that lobbyists can provide them with the necessary information to make educated decisions on legislation and lobbyists, in their best interest, build trust and relationships with legislators by providing them timely and accurate information.[10] Over time, lobbyists build working relationships and access to certain legislators. Additionally, there is additional ‘political capital’ built with legislators who come from the same profession as the lobbyist or the lobbyist’s client. From this a unique information sharing relationship can be built where lobbyists and legislators can educate each other and serve as joint experts in their respective area of expertise on relevant legislation. More about how this impacts coalition work will be described later.

Lobbyists also have access to resources. These resources may include campaign contributions, access to research data/information, grassroots organizing, widespread membership as constituents, or membership dues, to name a few. Lobbyists, depending on their strengths or weaknesses in these various resource areas, develop different tactics to best position them for success on policies or budgets and within coalition work, when necessary. For example, the Oregon Student Association representing 120,000 public university and community college students[11] doesn’t have monetary resources in the form of campaign contributions or access to in-depth research data and analytics. As a result OSA focuses on grassroots organizing through work on college campuses, receives membership dues to hire staff, including a full-time Legislative Director to serve as an in-house lobbyist and works to increase its already widespread membership constituency base. Therefore, OSA focuses the tactics it uses to maximize the resources available to the organization and minimize weaknesses from a lack of resources in certain areas. The approach and tactics OSA uses in approaching coalitions is heavily influenced by its resources, in addition to the other factors described earlier.

Lobbyists Joining & Forming Coalitions

When examining lobbyist coalitions, it is important to understand why lobbyists work together in the first place. The legislative process, by nature, is dependent on relationships and trustworthy interaction to act on constituency needs and move legislation addressing those needs. This creates an environment where actors find themselves in a situation in which it can be detrimental for the lobbyist to conduct their work in isolation, unless the group’s issue is narrow enough indicating that their lobbyist’s time and effort is better spent working alone.[12] Lobbyists influence decision making through elected officials which requires that they don’t isolate themselves from decisions makers or other interest groups’ lobbyists. The landscape of legislative work continues to become more complex as a result of increasing demand for legislation on a variety of issues[13] and an increase in interest groups participating in the legislative process. In addition to legislators, lobbyists also work in a more complex environment that, most of the time, does not have simple solutions. Literature summarizes and states that “lobbyists do appear more likely to cooperate in coalitions today than in the past, or to break old policy monopolies by redefining how issues are perceived by the public”[14] This also leads to the conclusion that it is becoming more impractical for lobbyists to act in isolation from other lobbyists or interest groups.[15]

A trend that also occurs in the lawmaking process and from interest group coalition work is that coalitions of lobbyists tend to form around legislation that is likely to pass.[16] Typically, legislation with a supportive coalition, as opposed to legislation with a single source of support, is more likely to at least pass a committee, if not both chambers of the legislature and become law.[17] A few reasons can be attributed to this conclusion including, the collective resource pool available to coalitions, the perception of an easier victory that provides additional incentive for interest groups to join the coalition, increased collective access and support to legislators, sometimes a reduction in opposition, and a potentially improved quality of the legislation being considered. The likelihood for success of a bill may also be an incentive for lobbyists to join coalitions because the interest group can amongst other acts, use the victory as a tool for promotion of their work.[18]

In 2013 Senate Bill 270[19] created a new system of university governance and allowed the three major universities in Oregon (University of Oregon, Oregon State University and Portland State University) to leave the Oregon University System and be governed by their own independent, institutional boards. The bill passed in the final weeks of legislative session. At the start of the session coalitions existed that supported and opposed the legislation, but after years of work on the bill, the supportive coalition had the advantage. Oregon State University was a major player in the opposition coalition with the student and labor lobbies. Eventually, Oregon State University shifted its stance to supporting the bill and joining the University of Oregon, Portland State University, state agencies and the business lobby. This move came as a major blow to the opposing coalition and provided the necessary support to the coalition advocating for Senate Bill 270 and serves as an example of how coalitions form around legislation likely to pass. The rationale for the change in position cited, as one of the factors, likely implementation of the policy and Oregon State University sought to ensure that their institution remained competitive with the University of Oregon and Portland State University through the changes in statewide governance. Though this wasn’t the sole factor, the likelihood that the bill would pass provided incentive for inclusion of Oregon State University in the supportive coalition.

Experts also attribute the development of coalitions to reduced opposition. Additionally, the Oregon legislative process tends to encourage interest groups and opposition to work out disagreements in legislation prior to the legislation being heard. This allows both the proponents and opponents of an issue to come to a compromise for the sake of conserving resources and relationships[20] by not having to fight publicly in front of the legislature. Coalition formation can be the result of developed compromise, but also exists in the presence of opposition. Joining a coalition can also perceived as having more substantial benefits when opposition exists,[21] however when a perception exists of low government support the probability of success is much lower[22] therefore, having a negative effect on coalition formation.

Coalition work and formation doesn’t just occur between lobbyists and frequently occurs between lobbyists and legislators or their staff. Legislators rely on the topical expertise, resources and relationships with lobbyists[23] and lobbyists rely on the relationships and access legislators provide them.[24] Lobbyists also act as coalition partners with legislators, not only to advance their interest groups’ priorities, but to build longer term relationships with the legislative sponsor(s) as well.[25] In addition to the added capacity lobbyists can provide in coalition with a legislator’s office, developing a list or large number of coalition partners can show broad support for a concept. A legislator and lobbyist, or multiple lobbyists, may come together on a concept for a piece of legislation, have that legislation written and then “shop it around” to get as many supportive groups to sign on as possible. Again, to supply a perception of broad support for the legislation. Lobbyists form a core group around legislation, typically including the main sponsor(s) of the bill, and identify key leaders in the coalition.[26] From there, it can be observed that other favorable groups will sign on to the growing coalition, but most of the time these groups take a secondary or ancillary role.

Balance and Compromise in Coalitions

A coalition built on a core center of lobbyists and legislators, with secondary or ancillary roles for each member, necessitates different and specific roles of coalition members. Fulfillment of these roles will be valuable to the overall efforts and presumed success of the coalition. Roles of lobbyists within a coalition can include balancing the pressures applied to them from members of their organization or clients with the need to compromise toward common solutions,[27] cooperation in the development of legislation and working out differences privately so a unified effort is showcased to the legislative assembly, combining resources and various access points for advancement of the coalition’s efforts,[28] and providing access to different populations, constituencies, relationships and legislators. The roles of lobbyists within a coalition vary depending of the circumstance, priority of the legislation to the lobbyist’s client or membership, the lobbyist’s resources and power relative to other coalition members, and the many other variables that arise during legislative sessions.

A key tension point for lobbyists in coalition work is balancing the needs/priorities of their members or clients, with access and relationships to legislators,[29] and the need to produce tangible results and victories for who they represent.[30] For a lobbyist, a partial victory is almost always better than no victory at all. However, there are many times when these dynamics come in to conflict with each other and make the nature of coalition work difficult for individual members of the coalition and the coalition as a whole. A good lobbyist will clearly understand the needs of their membership or their clients, how engaged those they represent are with the legislative process and how fervently those they represent stand on an issue. When clients and members are loosely engaged with the legislative process and don’t hold very firm to a stance on a certain piece of legislation, the lobbyist representing them has more flexibility to work in a coalition. However, when clients and members of interest groups follow the process closely and stand very firmly on issues, the lobbyist has less flexibility to compromise in work with other lobbyists or legislators who may have a different approach. In this or similar situations, the best action may be for the lobbyist not to join a coalition. The added dynamic of maintaining relationships with legislators can make balancing the needs of a client or members difficult. The lobbyist needs to gauge how much or how far they can move away from the mean (average) perspective of the client or membership to achieve a compromise within a coalition or with a legislator.

Much of the compromise described previously comes during the development of legislation. It is common in the Oregon legislature for lobbyists, in coalition or at least in a working relationship with each other, to work out details of legislation even before a bill comes to a committee hearing. As will be repeatedly emphasized, relationships and reputation are the most important assets to lobbyists in the legislative process, especially in the Oregon legislature where the legislative community relatively small. Many times, even if not working in coalition, lobbyists will give other lobbyists who have interest in a bill a chance to review the policy and engage in conversation about its contents before a hearing is scheduled. This gives both lobbyists a strategic opportunity to come to agreement or compromise on a piece of legislation to prevent a fight on a bill in front of a committee. Granted, some differences are irreconcilable and testimony both in favor and against a bill will occur. Proponents of a bill seek to avoid the perception of a negative impact resulting from their proposed legislation. Working out differences before a public hearing or work session also alleviate legislators from having to make difficult choices between different interests or constituent bases[31] if an agreement to language in a bill can be reached by stakeholders before the bill goes to committee. This method also prevents the potentially unnecessary expenditure of resources between opposing viewpoints.

Interest Group Resources in Coalitions

Resources are a component in which individual lobbyists may differ most in contribution to a coalition and may also provide a unique approach to joint strategy. Coalition work allows lobbyists and interest groups to combine resources to achieve a collective goal.[32] Again, with the increased number and scope of legislative issues, the difficulty of influencing all of the issues that affect a particular lobbyist’s client or membership also increases in difficulty. Lobbyists can use the unique resources at their disposal to engage in coalition work successfully, collectively engage in the competitive environment of Oregon’s legislative process, and continue to build relationships with key legislators. Some lobbyists may contribute to a coalition influence and relationships they have with legislators from working on the electoral campaigns of candidates or from campaign contributions, while others can provide grassroots organizing resources and access to constituents for legislators who may hold key votes on the issue. In certain cases, leaders of coalitions may reach out to specific groups based on their membership or specific relationships to legislators that the coalition may not have access to.[33]

For example a lobbyist representing a medical profession may be a valuable asset to a coalition that seeks to address the issue of increasing student debt. During the 2015 legislative session Representative Rayfield from House District 16 in Corvallis, OR sponsored a bill[34] to raise the maximum tax deduction on student loan interest from the federal $2500 deduction to $6000 covered by the state. The bill is also caps the home mortgage tax deduction to make the legislation’s impact revenue neutral. The majority people benefiting from the increased deduction will likely be individuals with six-figures of student loan debt. The Representative’s office reached out to a variety of legislators and interest groups, including students, labor, veterinarians, doctors and lawyers to join a coalition on the bill. On face value, this partnership may look out of place. However, a deeper examination shows that the lobbyist for a medical profession will have access to individual interest groups members with significant student debt from a high cost degree who can provide testimony and meet with individual legislators. The lobbyist will also have access to legislators who come from the medical profession and will be able to extend the coalition’s influence through them. Additionally, an added benefit is provided to the work of the coalition when lobbyists that typically don’t interact end up working together.[35]

Interest groups and their lobbyists also contribute a variety of human and financial resources to coalition work. “Groups that have policy-oriented goals join coalitions to reduce their resource expenditures, to shape the content of policy proposals, and to define the parameters of the issue debate.”[36] The necessity of resources to the success of legislation prioritized by a coalition leads lobbyists, when recruiting coalition members, to look to other groups for a variety of resource including grassroots organizing, expertise and relationships.[37] Interest groups may contribute monetary resources or campaign contributions, while others may have a specialization in grassroots organizing and bringing constituents of key legislators to Salem. Resources are a key measure when recruiting members to a coalition and of the success of a coalition on policy.

Conclusion

The role of lobbyists is implicit in Oregon’s legislative process and coalition work between lobbyists is an important component of that. Coalition work between lobbyists is not necessarily an easy task to accomplish. It requires compromise and cost-benefit analysis on the part of each member of the coalition. Interest groups and lobbyists form coalitions for a variety of reasons and the composition of each coalition varies depending on the needs of its members and the focused advocacy of the coalition itself. The type of interest group, roles of its lobbyist and the classification of the lobbyist’s approach to the legislative process are all factors in the formation of coalitions with other organized interests. The relationships between lobbyists and legislators also contribute. A lobbyist with relationships to specific legislators can appear to be a valuable asset and is therefore recruited to a coalition or, conversely, a legislator may lean on their relationship with interest groups to develop a coalition a push their priority legislation.

Many interest groups join coalitions because they have determined that participating in a coalition is more advantageous to their priorities than working alone. Coalitions are often formed on legislation that is likely to succeed and this can be attributed to a variety of reasons including the perception of broad support for the issue and the reduction of opposition by compromise being worked out ahead of time. Balancing roles of coalition members will be key to the success of the coalition. While advantage can be attributed to coalition work, lobbyists must also balance potential consequences as well. These include the loss of autonomy in coalition decision making, a potential ineffective use of resources, and compromise. Depending on the needs of their client or group membership lobbyists will have different levels flexibility that dictate their ability to join and participate in coalition work.

Working in a coalition has benefits and drawback for interest groups and their lobbyists resulting in a complex dynamic that differs for every formed coalition. The complexity of coalition work is reflective of the growing complexity of Oregon’s legislative process. This is a fascinating area of study and will continue to provide a valuable understanding of the landscape of Oregon legislative politics that is so inherently tied to interest groups and those that work on their behalf.

Endnotes

[1] Hojnacki, M. (1997). “Interest Groups’ Decisions to Join Alliances or Work Alone.” American Journal of Political Science, 62.

[2] Ibid., 62.

[3] De Bruycker, I. 2014. How Interest Groups Develop Their Lobbying Strategies. Glasgow: ECPR’s General Conference 2014, 5.

[4] Rosenthal, Alan. 1993. The Third House: Lobbyists and Lobbying in the States. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 150.

[5] Clucas, Richard A., Mark Henkels, and Brent S. Steel. 2005. Oregon Politics and Government. Lincoln, Nebraska: University of Nebraska Press, 87.

[6] Ibid., 84.

[7] Ibid., 87.

[8] Rosenthal, A. 2009. Engines of Democracy: Politics and Policymaking in State Legislatures. Washington, DC: CQ Press, 151-152.

[9] Ibid., 151-152.

[10] Holyoke, T. T. 2009. “Interest Group Competition and Coalition Formation.” American Journal of Political Science 360-375, 360.

[11] http://www.orstudents.org/

[12] Hojnacki, “Interest Groups’ Decisions to Join Alliance or Work Alone,” 84.

[13] Holyoke, “Interest Group Competition and Coalition Formation,” 360.

[14] Ibid., 361.

[15] Hojnacki, “Interest Groups’ Decisions to Join Alliances or Work Alone,” 84.

[16] Grossman & Dominguez., “Party Coalitions and Interest Group Networks,” 776.

[17] Ibid., 794.

[18] Holyoke, “Interest Group Competition and Coalition Formation,” 362.

[19] https://olis.leg.state.or.us/liz/2013R1/Measures/Overview/SB270

[20] Holyoke, “Interest Group Competition and Coalition Formation,” 362.

[21] Hojnacki, “Interest Groups’ Decisions to Join Alliances or Work Alone,” 62

[22] Ibid., 67.

[23] Rosenthal. Engines of Democracy, 157.

[24] Ibid., 157.

[25] Ibid., 155.

[26] Grossman & Dominguez, “Party Coalitions and Interest Group Networks,” 795.

[27] Holyoke, “Interest Group Competition and Coalition Formation,” 360.

[28] Ibid., 365.

[29] Ibid., 360.

[30] Ibid., 360.

[31] Rosenthal, The Third House: Lobbyists and Lobbying in the States, 150.

[32] De Bruyecker, How Interest Groups Develop Their Lobbying Strategies, 6.

[33] Ibid., 6 & 12.

[34] https://olis.leg.state.or.us/liz/2015R1/Measures/Overview/HB3342

[35] Rosenthal, The Third House: Lobbyists and Lobbying in the States, 151.

[36] Hojnacki, Interest Groups’ Decisions to Join Alliances or Work Alone, 64.

[37] Ibid., 69.

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