Sean Davis was sent to Washington, D.C., to speak to our nation’s lawmakers and act as a lobbyist. He reflects on that experience and implores a call for action.
The New York Times, Politico, CNN, and just about every other news source is running articles on how the two presumptive nominees for president have the lowest national approval ratings in the last forty years. These polls have shown that the only thing the American people hate more than their own party’s candidate is the other party’s candidate. Congress is worse. Truman first came up with the name “Do Nothing Congress” and it happened when he was president. The Republicans were the majority in both chambers of commerce and decided to stall many needed policies and bills just like today, but Truman’s Do Nothing Congress still passed a total of 906 public bills. Our Congress hasn’t passed more than 300 bills a year since 2007. Some may argue that less bills may be a good thing, but the fact that our executive branch and our legislative branch cannot work together is definitely not. We’re heading into an unprecedented era of distrust and abject disgust with the people running our country. We can all see the effects of this in our pop culture, in our states, and in our neighborhoods. So, yeah, perfect time to start my career as a lobbyist.
On my first day in Washington, D.C., I reported to the Pew Charitable Trust’s building for Lobbyist 101 school. The interior of the building looked like it was all built by Apple: white floors, white ceilings, white hallways, glass office walls, and modern art. The world had never seen the pure volume of vigorous and semi-sincere handshakes per capita that occurred that morning, not on this scale. This was Wilderness and National Monument Advocacy Week. The mission was to send regular people and members of conservation groups from around the country to speak to lawmakers and convince them to champion bills that would protect land in our states, and speak to the “Administration” through the Council of Environmental Quality (CEQ) and the Department of the Interior (DOI) and convince them to convince the president to use the powers given him by the Antiquities Act to designate a special piece of land in our state a monument.
The slew of PowerPoints and lobbying lectures began and every speaker, without exception, was apologetic about what little our current Congress has done. We were told that there was absolutely no chance that they would try to pass any of our bills by themselves. The only way our bills would get passed was to add them onto the big spending bill at the end of the session, which was only about a month away. They told us that they had spoken to all our lawmakers already. They’ve laid out the facts, given them pie charts, graphs, polls, and statistics, but none of that would do any good without us. We are the stories and the stories are the catalysts for action. A man with over forty years experience on the Hill told us that lobbying is asking a complete stranger for a favor. A Congressman or Congresswoman can easily shine on a career lobbyist like him, but if he shines on one of his constituents, especially one with a good story, that could mean trouble, and on the other hand if your story is good enough to land in one of the Congressman or Congresswoman’s speeches, it will help them garner support for your bill.
Here are the basic steps you need to know to become a lobbyist:
- Don’t be upset if you don’t speak to the Congressman or Congresswoman. It is the staffers who do all the work and they are the ones you need to tell your story to and give the information packet to.
- Tell your story and be authentic, establish a relationship, make eye contact, and try to make the conversation 50/50 by asking questions. Don’t recite facts. That is what the packet is for.
- Have an ask. Ask them to introduce a bill, or reintroduce it, or champion it, or mark it up.
- Give them the info packet with all the graphs, stats, and facts at the end of the conversation. You don’t want them looking through it and not listening to the story in the precious time you have with them.
- End by asking for a photo with their boss (all staffers on the Hill refer to their Congressman or Congresswoman as the boss). Many times the boss is just in the next room. If you’re lucky enough to have them pop out for a photo, repeat steps 2 and 3.
- Follow up with a thank you email to the staffer and in the body of that email repeat steps 2 and 3.
- Finally, when you get home, write a letter to the editor on how much the Congressman or Congresswoman has helped your cause. They have staffers who read all the Op-Eds from all the papers in their districts.
We broke up into groups according to our states. The Oregon group had two men to represent the sportsmen community, one local to each of our three bills, a man to represent the entrepreneurs and small business, and me, the Purple Heart veteran. We were all filled with hope, excitement, and a purpose larger than ourselves as individuals or a group as we stuffed our group into two taxis and headed to Capitol Hill.
Our first interview was with one of our state representatives. As soon as she sat down, we handed her the packet. She looked through it as we all recited the facts she was looking through instead of listening to us. After fifteen minutes, she looked up, smiled, and told us that she would touch base with some people, close the circuit, follow up, and we’d be in touch. Then she handed us cards, but told us that they were no good because she’d be leaving for law school at the end of the month, so don’t bother emailing her.
Luckily, the rest of our meetings went way better.
We had three missions:
- To pass the Oregon Wildlands Act (Senate Bill 1699) which would protect, preserve, and enhance 94,700 acres of BLM (Bureau of Land Management) land. The bill was introduced by Senator Wyden and Senator Merkley, read twice, and was referred to the Committee on Energy and Natural Resources. If possible, get a companion bill in the House.
- To pass the Senate Bill 1448 that would designate 104,000 acres of land as the Frank Moore Wild Steelhead Sanctuary. Frank Moore is a WWII veteran who stormed Normandy and since returning from war has been a hero conservationist. If possible, get a companion bill in the House.
- To talk to the DOI and CEQ in order to convince them to convince the president to use the authority given him by the Antiquities Act to designate 2.5 million acres of the Owyhee Canyonlands a monument. The Owyhee Canyonlands in southeastern Oregon is the largest intact, unprotected natural area in the lower 48 states. This is Oregon’s Grand Canyon with deep, red-rock canyons, rolling plains, and wild rivers.
Did we do any of this? I don’t know. We all told stories and waited until the end to give the packet. We had conversations and asked the reasons why the bills wouldn’t go through or why the president might not want to designate Owyhee a monument, and we had a few photo ops. In the end, I felt that we had a positive impact.
My whole point is that I was as cynical as the next guy when it came to our current government and I don’t like either of my choices for president, but Washington, D.C., weirdly, is a place that gives you hope that it could all work out. I met some amazing people doing everything they could to change the world, and they are doing it in some ways. I don’t mean the Senators or Representatives I met, although Peter DeFazio remembered me from my time in the Oregon National Guard and we had a great conversation. I mean the staffers. They have the opportunity to act on what they see is wrong in the world and they are better because of it. Too many people see so much negativity in the world and don’t have a clue what they can do to make a positive change.
More people need to have a stake in our society. Too many feel apathetic and powerless. Our government desperately needs improvement, but this can only happen when people get involved. Those in power today count on us not being involved, engaged, and informed. Andrew Jackson said, “The people are the government, administering it by their agents; they are the government, the sovereign power.” If the government is failing, that means we’re failing to do our job in choosing good people as our agents. Not everyone will get a free flight to D.C. and be thrown into meetings with all the lawmakers in their state, but you can lobby for a cause. Find a group trying to change a problem you feel strongly about and join them. Vote your conscience on local and national elections. It’s easy to be cynical and bitter; it’s much harder to be engaged and informed. One way propagates the problem while the other one fixes it.