Jerry Kopel

KOPEL: HOW TO AVOID STEPPING ON LEGISLATIVE TOES

New lobbyists should learn rules of the road

You got a promotion? Congratulations! Now your job is to lobby the Legislature on behalf of your department in the executive branch. Here are seven rules of conduct that may prevent some unfortunate episodes and save some favored piece of legislation from defeat.

• Rule No. 1: If you ask a legislator for help, either in voting for or against a bill, offering an amendment, speaking for a measure or protecting your department’s funding, be prepared to reciprocate.

As a legislator, I was often the advocate for the Department of Regulatory Agencies. That began with the Sunset process I carried as chief sponsor in 1976. In the years that followed, I carried bills to modernize the department’s licensing process and expand its role in reviewing regulatory legislation.

Then, when I asked for DORA’s support for a “then untried” psychotherapy grievance board, they gave it, not only because the concept made sense, but also because it came from someone who had battled for them in the legislative arena.

Reciprocity may not have to do with legislation, which brings us to:

• Rule No. 2: If a legislator asks for assistance, offer it unless it goes against some policy of your office.

Legislators are elected, and their constituents have to deal with government. Often, third-or fourth-echelon state employees give a hard time to constituents who are trying to resolve their problems.

The constituent complains to the legislator. The legislator asks the top people in your department to render assistance. You render that assistance.

The constituent is grateful to the legislator, and the legislator feels good about you, all because some lower-echelon employee acted thoughtlessly. The legislator is now someone who will listen when you talk about the merits of a bill you advocate.

Obviously, you want to give preferential treatment to a legislator who has been helpful to you. But even an opponent can be softened by the way you handle a constituent problem.

Lobbyists for non-governmental groups are aware of this rule. So, if a social worker who lived in my district was denied the right to take an exam because of a paperwork glitch, the social workers’ professional association would send the person to me. They knew that I would contact the department and that the department would do its best to satisfy my concern.

• Rule No. 3: In pushing for legislation, begin by deciding how much you can delegate to potential allies.

Once DORA decided to support my grievance board, they had to decide how to proceed. The Legislature is clogged with special interests represented by numerous lobbyists.

In Colorado, the population of lobbyists has grown from a few in the 1960s to many hundred. So if your issue and a private, special-interest lobbyist’s issue coincide, take a back seat and let the private, special-interest lobbyist do the heavy work while you stand by with informational support.

Why? Because legislators expect private special-interest lobbyists to play rough, but they get upset when the executive branch tries to be the heavy.

However, there are times when the governor wants something, and you have to do it. If, instead of being the lobbyist, you are the executive manager, the in-house lobbyist you choose from your department had better be as professional as those representing private groups.

A good bureaucrat is not necessarily a good lobbyist.

The lobbyist is the face of your department for many legislators. If that person establishes a good reputation over the years, your department builds a good rapport with the Legislature. Be sure to get feedback about your in-house lobbyist from many sources.

• Rule No. 4: Don’t go overboard on any particular issue. If your bill is stalled in the House Appropriations Committee, think twice before trying to force it out. There is always next session.

Legislative issues usually aren’t a matter of getting everything you want or getting nothing. Usually, they’re a matter of how much of a bill or an issue you can get to go in your favor under the current circumstances.

If you expect a legislator to compromise on his or her issue, why should you be any different? If there is something you want but can’t get because too many legislators oppose it, take what you can get. Your office will still be around after many of the bill’s legislative opponents are gone.

After voting several thousand times in a session, I have often forgotten why I voted a particular way the previous year. Just try again next session, adding little by little to anything you’ve gained.

The bureaucracy always outlasts the Legislature and the governor. If you don’t believe me, ask Ghengis Khan about the Chinese civil service.

• Rule No. 5: Avoid making enemies, because the legislator you oppose may be the one you need to help you on the next issue. Or, at least, avoid making enemies unnecessarily.

Think your position through. What are the consequences of the confrontation? Is your opposition to a senator’s pet project really worth the risk of having him or her cut off funding for an important program you want?

Can you win in a less obtrusive manner by getting your opponent’s bill stuck in the finance committee when your department reports that it will cost “X” number of dollars to fund? Or can you get help from a legislator who is an opponent of your opponent?

If you have to take a legislator on directly, alert the legislator about what’s going to happen, and why. There is almost always a possible compromise.

• Rule No. 6: Never surprise a legislator by making your objections known for the first time at a committee hearing.

I have seen legislators become almost apoplectic when that happens, and you will have made an enemy for life. Sooner or later, that legislator will exact revenge, even if cooperating with you would have helped their constituents. For some legislators, revenge is the sweetest dessert.

• Rule No. 7: Always remember the Legislature is not a level playing field. When you send your staff members over to testify before a legislative committee, be sure they remember: Never be confrontational at legislative hearings.

You don’t make points by showing how stupid a particular legislator is. Always choose someone to speak who maintains a modulated tone of voice, who doesn’t shout. Legislators like to shout at you or at each other, but they get upset if you shout at them.

Lobbyists who choose witnesses should realize the best witnesses are not necessarily the best experts. If you can present your support or opposition in a conversational tone, do it. Your statement doesn’t have to be dull. There can be a display of emotion — within bounds. Just don’t overpower your listeners.

Don’t exaggerate your testimony. Never tell a lie or give half the truth, even if the full truth undermines your position. Credibility is the only asset a member of the executive branch brings to a committee hearing. If you lose that, if you are caught in a lie, then get another job, because in Colorado you are dead in the water.

Jerry Kopel served 22 years in the Colorado House.