The Art of Lobbying: Building Trust and Selling Policy


Bertram J. Levine

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    For Shelly.

    This book would not have been possible without her.


    Lobbyists are sometimes called the “fourth branch of government” or the “third house of Congress.” Many lobbyists likely would consider these designations to indicate an elevation in their status—and a well-earned one at that. They are pleased. Other people, on the contrary, may see an ill-gotten usurpation of authority. They are not so pleased; in fact, they are horrified.

    Whatever one's view, this much is clear: Lobbyists are indispensable players in the business of national policymaking. Whether representing a business, an industry, a nonprofit institution, a public interest group, or a faith-based organization, lobbyists are the means by which the private sector participates in the give-and-take of lawmaking in Washington, D.C. When viewed as special interest pleaders, they are likened to interlopers, trespassers upon a public domain rightfully reserved for duly empowered public officials. When seen as citizens' representatives performing an essential function in a complex world, they not so problematically can be regarded as the fourth branch or a third house.

    The distinction is important, especially in the aftermath of the lobbying scandals of the early 2000s involving Jack Abramoff and Rep. Tom DeLay, R-Texas, when indignant members of Congress tried to outbid each other in regulating lobbyist–lawmaker relationships. Their indignation is understandable, but indignation alone does not beget intelligent response—far from it. Overzealous remediation, designed more for public consumption than for optimal policy results, is the all too frequent outcome of bidding contests among tough-guy legislators. Congress has responded to the Abramoff scandal by ratcheting down on permissible social contact between lobbyists and lawmakers and by slowing the “revolving door” between government service and private-sector positions.a These new laws may at first seem to be reasonable responses to corrupt behavior, but are they? Or are they unnecessary barriers to open and trusting exchanges of information and ideas, the sort of exchanges that promote fully informed deliberation?

    What is both troublesome and ironic is that each new limitation on lobbyist–lawmaker interaction signals diminished confidence by Congress in its own integrity. Lobbyists cannot answer “yea” or “nay” to roll call votes, offer amendments, insert language into committee reports, speak on the floor of either chamber in Congress, question witnesses at hearings, or gavel a markup session to order. At any given time only 535 people—the members of Congress—can do these things. Lobbyists may influence how and when members cast their votes, and how members participate in legislative activity. But influence is one thing; authority to do these things is another. Members have this authority; lobbyists do not. Thus lobbyists can wine and dine, contribute funds, and raise as much political money for the candidates of their choice as they are able to do, but unless members are amenable to being swayed by these or other forms of largesse, no undue influence will come of the lobbyists' efforts. The member who claims otherwise might as well claim “the devil made me do it.”

    Academic journals and lay publications bulge with articles on this subject. Is there really such a devil at work? Maybe so, but this book will not contribute to the bulge in any important way.b It is well conceded that money plays a role in gaining access to members of Congress and that it likely plays a role in how some members vote some of the time. But, according to current and former lawmakers and staff, much else, other than campaign money, goes into forging a successful lobbyist–member relationship. Among the other “elses” are a manifest concern for the common good, sensitivity, intelligence, and good old-fashioned savvy.

    This book is a qualitative examination of the elses.c It is designed to discover what members of Congress and their staffers consider, consciously or intuitively, when deciding which lobbyists they will hear, which arguments they will take seriously, and with whom they will establish ongoing relationships.

    The primary research method for this book was one-on-one interviews that I conducted with sixty-five present and former—mostly former—federal policymakers and eight practicing lobbyists. (There will be more on the interviews in chapter 1.) My objective here is to provide readers with something closer to a Socratic learning experience than a how-to manual—though in chapter 7 I provide some general guidance on what lobbyists should think about as they design their legislative strategies. As much as possible, however, I let the legislators and staff provide the insights.

    Notwithstanding the obvious concerns about vested interests, personal bias, and false honor, it would be absurd to dismiss the observations of veteran policymakers with a simple “They're all a bunch of crooks.” They are not. Richard F. Fenno's view that “good public policy” is among the three basic “goals espoused by members” of Congress remains accepted wisdom.1 Many hundreds of hours of conversation with the study cohort convinced me that Fenno was dead on.

    The interviews were supplemented by what Fenno and Richard L. Hall call “soaking and poking, or just hanging around.” Hall explains the value of this research technique: “If such an experience does not provide what normally gets labeled data, it certainly improves the ability of the researcher to do better in the (unscientific) social science enterprise of moving from results to interpretations. And, in the end, of course, the interpretations matter.”2

    One such interpretation that came out of the interviews I conducted is this: With but a few exceptions there is little that resembles an absolute in the lobbying profession. There is no equation that provides the practitioner with a constant, predictable outcome. The work is too complex, too varied, and too personal for that. In addition, it is too situation-driven and too issue-dependent to be quantified. Thus the title of this book: Lobbying is not a science but an art. Moreover, it is an art within an art—the art of politics. And as in both the performance arts and the fine arts, the critics matter: The extent to which lobbyists succeed or fail, perform a positive or less admirable role in congressional deliberations, and are accepted or spurned on Capitol Hill is a function of what the ultimate critics, the policymakers, demand and value—not more, not less.

    This book is about those demands and those values.

    In conducting the research for this book I drew upon my personal experiences as a lobbyist and congressional counsel for one, and only one, purpose: The interview process was informed by my “on the ground” experience of nearly three decades. From the first interview forward this experience proved an important asset in identifying and then probing for second and third levels of information. The ability to say to an interviewee, “I understand your point; but isn't this also true?” often led to a more precisely honed and more productive exchange.

    The result, I believe, is a worthwhile look at what constitutes effective (and ineffective) lobbying from the vantage point of those who should know best—people who have been lobbied and who have seen the best and the worst of the lobbying profession.d


    The writing of this book became a family project in many ways. My son, Mike Levine—attorney turned football coach—was my go-to person. (The football metaphors that follow are mine, but Mike did review them for accuracy.) He read virtually every word, commented on content, and rewrote with immense energy and skill. Over and again he exhibited a remarkable ability to make my sometimes-choppy prose more readable. In addition, he provided much-needed support throughout.

    My wife, Shelly, a master English teacher, did the presubmission editing for every chapter. (As a card-carrying dyslexic I can safely venture that no one, other than my fellow dyslexics, can understand how important her help has been for me.) She too gave excellent advice about organization and content. And my daughter, Robin, herself a former English teacher, offered several astute observations and provided helpful advice.

    For many academics there is another sort of family, our colleagues. Among these I have been blessed by the friendship and wisdom of some invaluable mentors and role models—most of whom are many years my junior. Stan Brubaker and Mike Johnston of Colgate University are each the embodiment of the university scholar, as dedicated to their teaching as they are to their research, and superb at doing both. They have been constant sources of inspiration, willing and constructive critics, and just plain good listeners. Dan Tichenor, for many years at Rutgers and now at the University of Oregon, has given continuous encouragement and good advice. He epitomizes the selfless educator and scholar. Beth Leech of Rutgers is never too busy to act as a sounding board and always has right-on responses. In many ways, she is responsible for this book coming to life. Ross Baker, seventeen years ago, when I was a practicing lobbyist, made this suggestion: “Gee, Bert, you should think about auditing a PhD course or two.” With that advice he launched me on a personal adventure that has ranged beyond anything I could ever have dreamed. Many other colleagues read parts of the manuscript, made thoughtful observations, and offered suggestions for changes; they too gave useful advice, some of it on tactical matters such as interviewing techniques. Lyle Dennis, a true friend, was a constant source of good advice. Megan Hoover, a Rutgers undergraduate who provided me with invaluable support on some of the technical pieces of my work, was a tremendous help.

    Several academics took time to review this project at both the proposal and the manuscript stages. Thanks to John C. Berg, Joseph M. Gardner, Gregory G. Lebel, and Robert Nixon for their feedback.

    Of course, there are the people without whom there never could have been a book. The seventy-three interview subjects—members of Congress, former members, staff, former staff, lobbyists, and former career service executives—were unbelievably generous with their time and willing to share opinions, observations, and, best of all, countless anecdotes. The fifty-four former legislators who responded to my survey also were generous with their time and willing to share their views on some key points. Several took time to write additional observations on the subject matter of the book.

    I would also like to acknowledge the never mets (or almost never mets)—scholars of the first rank whose work has been essential to my understanding of Congress. Foremost are Richard Hall, whose Participation in Congress I believe to be one of the finest books ever written about the work of Congress, and Thomas Mann of the Brookings Institution, who has provided a stream of invaluable insights into the political and substantive work of legislators and lobbyists. Other scholars whose work I admire and reread, each time learning more, are R. Douglas Arnold, Frank Baumgartner, Jeffrey Berry, Diana Evans, Marie Hojnacki, Laura Langbein, Norman Ornstein, Kay Schlozman, Barbara Sinclair, and John Wright. And of course, there are the giants of our profession: Richard Fenno, John Kingdon, David Mayhew, and the late Richard Neustadt.

    Finally, thanks to the CQ Press staff. Dwain Smith, the development editor for this project, is the personification of the always pleasant, on-point, laid-back but very much in charge professional. His knowledge of how to put together a book is to me nothing short of remarkable. I will truly miss working with him. He has made what could have been a nerve-racking task a pleasure—well, almost. Ann Davies, who copyedited the manuscript, is of the same ilk. Her extraordinary skill (and I mean extraordinary), unflappable demeanor, and lovely sense of humor made addressing the myriad unfinished details that I imagined would just go away with no further input from me, including running down all of my not-quite-finished citations, a near …. pleasant experience. (Yes, I know; ellipses were not correctly used in this sentence. Eat your heart out, Ann!) Gwenda Larsen, the production editor, managed somehow to create organization out of my disorganization and to bring the project “home.” And finally, Charisse Kiino, chief acquisitions editor in the College Publishing Group, who encouraged me to take on this project in the first place, is another first-rate professional.

    I am certain that I have left out many people who should have been included here, but these are the folks who immediately come to mind. To all of them, all the thanks I know how to give.


    1. Richard F. Fenno Jr., Congressmen in Committees (Boston: Little, Brown, 1973), 1.

    2. Richard L. Hall, Participation in Congress (New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1996), 17.

    a. Some individuals have moved from one sector to the other several times. It is alleged that these people are able to use their contacts in government to benefit their private-sector employers.

    b. The one exception will be a few pages in chapter 4 that are directed to the subject.

    c. I do not attempt to prove what makes for a successful or unsuccessful relationship. My objective is antecedent to that work; here I set out to identify the key variables that those who were lobbied self-reported as having influenced their relationships with lobbyists.

    d. Many people—primarily the people who consented to providing interviews that often lasted well over an hour—have been very generous with their time and with the information they provided. That information is this book. For that reason, and in order to remain faithful to their contributions, I include many (many!) quotations—some of them lengthy. This provides the reader with valuable insights into what goes through the minds of policymakers as they listen to endless hours of entreaties from the good, the bad, and everyone in between.

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