Getting a bill passed is a lot more complicated than you may think. Rarely does legislation follow a straight line from its introduction to the day it lands on the governor's desk for a signature. And big campaign contributions don’t always mean success.
Lobbyists earn their pay by doing much more than drafting legislation, talking it up with the lawmakers on the committee where it will be sent and schmoozing in the lobby to round up enough votes. Lobbyists are worth their weight in gold when they anticipate what could go wrong on the legislative journey and take steps to avoid deadly detours.
To outsiders, lobbyists look like men and women who live the life – golfing, dining and hanging out with people with voting cards and the power to pass or kill a bill. If that’s all a lobbyist did, he or she might not be all that successful.
Anticipation starts before a bill is written or dropped. Lobbyists read the situation to see if the climate is right for a measure to make it. If, for example, Democrats control the legislature, right-to-work legislation has a slim to no chance of seeing the light of day, let alone getting adopted.
Assuming the climate is either conducive, or at least not problematic, the next thing to anticipate is the attitudes toward the bill of the chairs of the House and Senate committees where it would be referred. In the Oregon legislature, committee chairs have the power to “sit” on a bill and never give it a hearing or give it merely a perfunctory hearing.
A lobbyist will talk with committee chairs to see if they support or are at least okay with a bill and to find out what questions they have and background information they want. Some bills can be referred to more than one committee. This can be both a problem and an opportunity for a lobbyist. One way to get around a dissenting committee chair is to seek a referral to another committee with a more welcoming chair. Double committee referrals can be encouraged, which provides a lobbyist who opposes a bill twice the opportunity to erect roadblocks to stop it.
While committee chairs have the power over bills when they arrive in their possession, the presiding officers of the House and Senate are the ones with the power to decide where or where not to send bills. This is the next stop on the lobbyist's path to success to ensure the House Speaker or Senate President doesn’t send a bill to a committee where it will wind up stillborn.
All this activity occurs – or should occur – before a bill is introduced. Then the fun really begins.
Lobbyists need to prepare materials that explain the bill and its purpose. Complex bills require detailed explanations, which have to be clear and crisp or risk having the eyes of lawmakers glaze over.
Lobbyists will meet with legislators, especially the ones who sit on the committees where legislation would be considered. These meetings may involve bringing along a constituent to underscore the bill’s importance. In some cases, lobbyists will arrange tours to “see” the problem the bill seeks to solve. The same approach holds true if the lobbyist opposes a bill.
The preparation and meetings have another critical purpose – to ask for and confirm a legislator’s support for or opposition to the bill. Nailing down a “yes” or “no” may require more than a single meeting. Many legislators are reluctant to commit until they have heard the other side.
Eventually lobbyists develop a vote count, which becomes their real leverage. Even a reticent committee chair may yield to the wishes of his or her committee on a bill. A smart committee chair might use the opportunity to line up votes he or she wants on another, unrelated bill. Lobbyists have to keep track of this horse trading to avoid letting their legislation become manure tossed into the compost bin.
For most bills, lobbyists have to ask for a hearing. If they have the votes lined up in committee, they also ask for a work session, which allows the committee chair to call for a vote on the measure.
Once a hearing has been scheduled, lobbyists coordinate testimony. This can be as complicated as inviting a busload of people to testify or, at the request of a sympathetic chair, giving short-and-sweet testimony so the bill can be quickly moved along. Skilled lobbyists understand how to show the flag and fly under the radar.
An emerging trend is the need for coalitions of support, especially for bills that are contentious. It is not enough for a single lobbyist to tout a measure. Lawmakers want to know who else supports the bill, or at least who doesn’t oppose it.
When a bill makes it out of committee, it heads to the House or Senate floor, unless it has a fiscal impact, which means in most cases it then goes to the Joint Ways and Means Committee. In the Oregon legislative set-up, Ways and Means is an appropriations committee. It's also like a parole board. You have to show up and make a case for the release of your bill. Without approval, your legislation will rot in a fiscal jail.
A good chunk of bills that pass on the House and Senate floors draw minimal comment and debate. More often, even on non-controversial bills, legislators pose questions that the legislator carrying the bill attempts to answer. Lobbyists work with committee staff to anticipate questions and generate responsive, accurate answers. Under their code of ethics, Oregon lobbyists are obliged to correct any misinformation they provide, whether it's inadvertent or intentional.
Passing the House or Senate is just the start. Some House-Senate standoffs inevitably turn innocent bills into hapless hostages. Lobbyists have to use their political GPS to see an impediment coming and do what they can to skirt or manage the detour.
Even with reliable vote counts, nervous lobbyists typically pace outside the House and Senate chambers waiting for their bill to come up in debate and a vote. They also have to be available in case a lawmaker wanders out of the chamber to ask a random question about the bill.
If a bill is on its way through the legislative gauntlet, lobbyists must brief the governor’s staff. Unlike a committee chair who has the power of a pocket veto, the governor is required to sign or veto bills that reach his or her desk. If a bill faced serious opposition in the legislature, governors will usually scrutinize it carefully, seeking advice from their legal counsel and policy staffs. Bills with partisan overtones or ones that pass on largely party-line votes can present special lobbying challenges.
Of course, politics do play a role in legislation. Lobbyists court political relationships by contributing to legislative candidates, House and Senate leadership and Republican and Democratic caucuses, which can make a difference when a lobbyist calls for a meeting. But donating campaign cash doesn’t guarantee a legislative victory. That's why good lobbyists work to build trust by carefully validating their claims and by credibly and fairly telling their opponent’s story. Some lobbyists have even won the day by telling their opposition’s story better than their opponent. But all lobbyists are gauged on their propensity to tell the truth.
Some bills take more than a single session to make it all the way through the process to become law. That means repeating the drill – improving the bill and its support, perhaps with a stronger grassroots network, more powerful testimony or a more persuasive argument.
Bills that pass can be targets for amendments or even repeal in subsequent sessions. So the lobbyist’s job is seemingly never finished.
Lobbying involves hard, persistent and often monotonous work. The best lobbyists aren’t necessarily the ones with the most flash, but the ones with the creativity to see a path to success and the perseverance to follow that path. And it never hurts to have a really good vote count.