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Hamilton: What makes a strong lobbyist?

Lee Hamilton

Because of its power to influence public affairs, the press has long been known as “the Fourth Estate.” But I think the media may have been displaced. These days, it’s lobbyists who seem to carry the most clout in Washington.

Just before they left town this summer, members of the “do-nothing” Congress did get three things done: They passed a Veterans Administration reform package; they increased aid to Israel; and they kept highway construction projects around the country from losing funding. Why did these three measures find success when so many others did not? There’s a two-word answer: Powerful lobbyists.

Last year, some 12,000 active lobbyists spent $3.24 billion on trying to influence the federal government, according to the Center for Responsive Politics. I don’t know of any other country where lobbyists have those kinds of numbers, spend that kind of money, or get the kinds of results they’re able to achieve here — in Congress, in the executive branch and, increasingly, in statehouses around the country.

I don’t mean by this that they’re all-powerful. They don’t win every battle. But they do win most of them.

How do they do this? Good lobbyists don’t just provide large amounts of money for campaigns, they provide early money and expert help. Candidates remember that sort of thing.

Good lobbyists and their organizations also provide information in easily digestible form. They are sophisticated observers of public affairs who know whether, when, and how to approach government policymakers, along with the particular policymaker who can help them best. They understand that at heart, lobbying is about establishing relationships long before any particular issue affecting them comes up, so that when they go to talk about a bill, they’re going in to see a friend.

There are all kinds of approaches to members — the annual policy conferences to which members of Congress flock, the sponsored trips and meetings in out-of-the-way resorts where a lobbyist can get a few days of a member’s undivided attention. The best lobbyists are also friendly, approachable people who know how to talk to members and policymakers of both parties.

They are masters at making the system work for them. My guess is that their influence over policy surpasses the media’s clout, and lobbyists have now become the fourth branch of government.

Lee Hamilton is director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University.