How to Lobby Congress
“We did this job by walking across the street and saying, ‘We think this is a bad idea.”
I was sitting with Chaya in the office of an organization of Quaker lobbyists in Washington DC. A man with a cone-head and bright blue shirt walked into the board room and introduced himself as a lobbyists who worked on arms-control issues and petitioned congress to do away with nuclear warheads.
Wade from Vagabond Journey.com
in Brooklyn, New York City- October 30, 2008
Travelogue — Travel Photos
It may have been just a startling coincidence, but his head just so happened to look very much like a warhead. I typed a note of this on my Alphasmart Neo, as the lobbyist introduced himself.
“Warhead, warhead,” the lobbyist spoke.
“I think this guy’s head looks like a warhead,” I wrote, and then shared my observation with Chaya. She did not crack a smile, for she knew better than that. I knew that Chaya thought that I was funny, but she knew that if she even giggled slightly, I would have lost control and found myself convulsing in a sea of laughter, which probably would have been the end of our interview.
So in the face of Chaya’s stone-face I pulled myself together and listened to the warhead lobbyist continue talking about what he does – nuclear warheads – and how he squashed an arms production bill. In actuality, this fellow’s job is to walk over to the Longworth building, which houses the offices of the US congress members, and talks with their snot-nosed brats about his issues. In his case, he would chat them up and inform them about the particulars of nuclear warhead production.
“When I first went into a congressional office, I was like, ‘These kids are younger than me, and I am not sure if they know more than me,'” spoke the lobbyists with no small amount of excitement in his voice. He was totally into his job, and this came out in every word he spoke and every exclamatory expression on his face.
But his words were true. I have known plenty of legislative aides- the people who are responsible for briefing politicians on issues and influencing the direction of their vote – and they tend to be very young, snot-nosed, and only moderately educated. The blue shirted Quaker lobbyist, who was in his thirties, laughed as he spoke, and I began to realize that, even though he had a funny shaped head, he was actually showing himself to be a decent guy. He was clearly not a goon, though I am unsure if he fully meets the requirements of being human.
“So do you ever take these legislative brats out to dinner and try to loosen them up to the issues that you are pushing? You know, do you ever grease the gears a little?” I asked, thinking that this would be a good idea.
“That is the way that things use to be done, but not anymore,” the lobbyist replied, as he went on to explain how he attempted to influence congress.
He told me that he makes an appointment, talks to a legislative aide, and attempts to inform them of the issues at hand. This is all in the hope that the aide will somehow be influenced by his words and convey his influence onto the congressman that he works for. The Quaker added that it is the aide’s job, and not the politicians, to find out the information behind issues and to determine the direction that votes should be placed. So therefore, I was informed, the aides are really interested in what the lobbyists have to say, as they are one of their biggest sources of information.
This all sounded a little too idyllic to me. I could not believe that the people at the source of government could actually think that a lobbyist was anything other than an inconsequent geek. But perhaps this is just me. It was becoming evident that I had a lot to learn about government.
“Do you ever stomp into congress yelling hell-fire and grab those little goonie aides by the neck and tell them what is going on?” I asked with a good amount of humor.
The lobbyist laughed at my askance view of his job and told me that he did not really do this. “This is a long term thing,” he said, “I want to see what is in their head.”
I stopped short at these words, for they actually meant something to me. The lobbyist sometimes has to keep his opinions and words at bay in order to gain access to information that would assist him in his further mission. I knew then that I could use this indispensable tactic just as well in journalism:
People and their words are bridges, they can either lead you forward or break and drop you into the river below; they can carry you across to the other side or they can leave you stranded with nowhere to go. I realized that I was indirectly being taught a lesson by this lobbyist just by riding on his train. If I were to hold hard to my position – that lobbying is an overwhelmingly self-delusional tactic – I would have knocked myself off the train to be stranded. By smiling and making jokes, by really listening to what the lobbyist was saying, I was being lead to other places.
I had no idea then, as I was interviewing the Quaker lobbyist, that within a half hour’s time I, myself, would be sitting in the congressional office of Maine congressman, Mike Michaud, with a group of illegal Salvadorian immigrants, lobbying one of his aides about immigration rights and the pending presidential elections in El Salvador.
I am slowly learning how to get somewhere.
Vagabond Goes to Washington
Travel to DC and Richmond VA
Links to previous travelogue entries:
Vagabond Goes to Washington
Jocelyn Lieu Interview
Travel to DC and Richmond VA
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