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March 16, 2009

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LEGISLATIVE CONFERENCE COVERAGE

Expert Tips on Lobbying from . . . Experts
By SUSAN R. PAISNER, Senior Managing Editor

Christopher P. Boylan, deputy executive director, corporate affairs and communications, with the New York Metropolitan Transportation Authority, termed the March 9 workshop he moderated—“Effective Legislative Advocacy: Tips, Techniques, and Best Practices”—the “how-to” session through which attendees could learn how to communicate with people on Capitol Hill.

“The first secret to good lobbying,” he said, “unless you have a huge ego, the most important person to see in the room is really the staff folks, because they are the ones who influence the member. So keep the staffer or member informed on what you’re doing throughout the year.” He added: “Don’t always go with an ‘ask,’ go with a ‘tell,’” meaning that anyone lobbying or advocating for a particular cause should try to provide information, not just ask for something.

Further, suggested Boylan, always leave something behind—a card, note, APTA package—“so they’ll remember you were there.”

Successful Advocacy Techniques
Four panelists participated in the workshop. Sarah Kline, director of policy and governmental relations for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, gave this advice for how and when to provide input on new legislation: “Right now, if not yesterday.” The best time to put forth an issue or perspective is in that development process, she said, “before that bill even sees the light of day.”

As to how to compel members of Congress or staffers to pay attention to an issue, she stressed: “Create a compelling policy argument. What’s the real-life consequence? Just make the case.”

Jason Tai, legislative director and chief of staff in the office of Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL), focused on what he called the “three Ps”: policy, politics, and projects. “The politics of the personal office is very focused on the next election,” he said. While the staff members keep an eye on policy, “as the chief adviser to the member,” he added, “I’m more concerned about politics—how it plays back home.”

Tai’s advice was certainly to talk about the subject being advocated, but to keep in mind that “the relationship game is a big part of this: having people skills, and understanding how policies and policy are intertwined.”

Tai added a fourth “P,” for “pretty nice,” meaning that visitors to a Congressional office should be nice, be pleasant when approaching with a request, policy, or project.

Tim Lovain, chair, APTA Washington Area Transit Industry Representatives Group, and vice president and general counsel, Denny Miller Associates of Washington, DC, distilled his suggestions initially to three words: time, reelection, and comity.

“Time is maybe the most important—it’s the scarcest commodity on Capitol Hill,” Lovain said, “so be respectful of the time pressures they are under.” Make the point right away (“with a member, you’ve got maybe 15 seconds”), unless, he added, the staffer “wants to talk about college basketball.” This concern about time, he said, also applies to any materials left behind, which generally should be only one or two pages.

Because House members in particular are always looking toward their next election, he advised that visitors, for example, when talking about ridership, stress how many of the member’s constituents will use a park-and-ride lot. He also advised scheduling ground breakings and ribbon cuttings during Congressional recesses, and inviting the members to attend and participate.

On the subject of comity, he said: “The ‘my esteemed colleague’ is the lubricant; it’s part of the ethic here. So don’t be sarcastic or angry or condescending.”

Good lobbyists, Lovain pointed out, “are translators between their clients and members of Congress.” Since information is always valuable, he added, those who lobby from agencies might make only one or two visits to Washington a year, while a hired lobbyist could be a frequent presence on the Hill.

The last presenter was Kathy Ruffalo, a member of the National Surface Transportation Infrastructure Financing Commission and president of Ruffalo and Associations LLC, Washington, DC. She provided short but pointed advice, including: “Know your message (ask how much time you have and be ready to adjust your message to that time frame); be gracious and don’t ever get into arguments; follow up and follow through (send a thank-you note, by mail or e-mail); and don’t be afraid to talk to members, even if publicly they seem not to support you (they want to find a way to say ‘yes,’ so say: I know you can’t support ‘x,’ but can you support ‘y’?).”

In addition, she said: “I am a firm believer that if a person came in to see me and had a compelling policy reason—how public transportation impacts me and my neighborhood—that meant more than a high-powered lobbyist.”

Last Set of Helpful Hints
Near the end of the session, panelists provided a few more pointers: don’t make staffers work (one panelist cited a “citizen” advocate who said, “I brought only one copy, could you Xerox it for me?”); be credible; and understand that what people say is not always reliable (in other words, quoting Ronald Reagan, trust but verify).

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