How an Activist Can Become an Effective Lobbyist

"Don't confuse what goes on in this building with democracy..."

About 15 years ago, what began as few hours a week volunteering at the Sierra Club's Massachusetts office evolved into being a fulltime pro-bono career as a lobbyist, citizen-activist, and Sierra Club environmental advocate. The work was always challenging, exciting -- and frustrating. Being a lobbyist is far more difficult than I could possibly have imagined. This isn't because of the logistics of meetings, nor the demands that it places on one's schedule. It's about understanding the process that stands between an idea and it becoming a law.

In the coming weeks, I'll be posting a series of articles on my thoughts about working with state legislators to promote good laws, as well as discourage bad ones. There are many styles of lobbying, many of which are equally valid. Choosing and developing an effective style takes patience, awareness, and planning. If you're already engaged in lobbying on the state or local level, my words may help you sharpen your skills. If you're new to the effort, I hope you'll take the time to ask other lobbyists and former legislators for their thoughts.

Rule 1: Learn and Understand the Process

The most important first step is learning the process. Local and state governments have cycles; they don't function like "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington." That's Hollywood. For example, in the Massachusetts State Legislature, the procedure is:

A. A bill is proposed in the first 2-weeks of the 2-year session. It's assigned to a committee that hears matters of this type.
B. After a few weeks, (but before March ~15 of the second year), it has a public hearing. The committee votes whether to approve it (perhaps with amendments) or not.
C. If the bill receives a positive vote, it then goes to the "Ways and Means" Committee, which investigates the financial impacts of the proposal.
D. If Ways and Means also approves the bill, it goes (indirectly) to the floor of the full House/Senate for a vote (this is a bit simplified).
E. If it passes both the State Senate and the House, the bill goes to a specially appointed Joint Conference Committee that studies any possible differences. They make a unified recommendation to both bodies, which then vote on the revised version.
F. The approved final bill goes to the Governor for his/her approval.

Many websites will delve into the details of exactly how it works in your state. It's important to keep in mind that this is how it's supposed to work. In practice, it rarely happens in such an orderly, predictable manner. A good lobbyist or advocate understands these nuances, and then structures a campaign to achieve specific goals.

Wait... isn't the goal the passage of a good bill? Yes and no. A new idea, no matter how brilliant, rarely passes during one legislative cycle. Sometimes, the goal is to introduce an idea and press for its passage the next legislative cycle. Or sometimes the idea is to counter a really bad bill that's been floating around. There are many reasons a bill can be filed.

Rule 2: Always keep in mind what your end-game is

Don't allow yourself to get distracted. The 'bad guys' will always have bad bills in play. Maintain a laser-like focus on your bill(s), educating legislators, seeking the help of like-minded groups, and carefully constructing your strategy.

Rule 3: Obey the Law

I guess this should have been Rule 1. There are many laws that govern what you can do, your expenses, keeping perfect records, and reporting to appropriate agencies. The First Amendment doesn't give you the right to violate state and local laws. Learn them before you do anything.

Rule 4: Don't get discouraged

Legislation typically moves forward at a glacial pace. Cynicism is your greatest enemy, but exhibiting unbridled optimism will not win you many friends either. A careful balance of realism, optimism, and patience is needed. Setbacks happen. The most important thing to always remember is that the work you're doing is critical. Whether it's environmental work, social justice, or likewise, your hard work is needed for progress.

Next article:
How to get your bill written, introduced, and supported.