Lobbyist. It’s a funny word that evokes all sorts of images in the American mind. But basically it’s just a person who tries to influence government.
Every citizen has the ability to walk into the Capitol and “lobby” the Legislature and even the Executive branch. You don’t even have to have any special credentials or skills. However, since there are professionals in the building all the time, it’s not wise to walk in without being aware of what you are in for.
I have my own ideas of what works and what doesn’t, but I decided to do a little outsourcing. I asked for do’s and don’ts from friends on Facebook, many of which are current or former Legislators and legislative staff. Two themes developed: Respect the staff and Be prepared.
Respect the Staff. The first person you need to convince isn’t the Legislator herself, but the staff person. A legislator spends all day in meetings. The staff person is the gate keeper of the schedule and the flow of information. Be nice to the staff, respect his or her position and you will be much more likely to successfully “lobby” the member.
Be Prepared. This doesn’t mean you need a law degree, but it does mean you need to have a basic knowledge of the bill, what it does and why you support or oppose it. Present your information in 10 minutes. Most meetings are 15 minutes, so this lets you have time for questions or chit-chat. You will also increase your influence if you are aware of the opposing arguments and can offer reasons why your arguments are better. If questions come up you can’t answer, write them down and follow up. Lobbying is a process, not a one-time meeting.
Even if you don’t have time for personal visits to the Capitol, it is not a waste of time to send emails and make phone calls. Yes, you may end up a tally mark in a file, but staff and legislators do pay attention. When they receive hundreds of emails related to a bill, it may not change their vote, but it does make an important point and it may slow down or stop a harmful bill.
I encourage you to take some time to visit your Capitol, engage with your elected officials and staff in a respectful and winning way. You might be surprised how influential you can be.