How to Become a Lobbyist

Lawmaking bodies like the United States Congress or the various state legislatures wield enormous power to affect the quality of life for each and every citizen. It is no surprise, then, that the plethora of interests present in the American economy and culture will also seek a presence in the halls of political power. These interests include – but are not limited to – farmers, labor unions, business organizations, import/export partnerships, non-profit issue advocacy groups, health care providers and local governments. Such constituencies seek to promote their points of view and gain favor with lawmakers by hiring experts in the legislative process to make their case. These professionals are referred to as “lobbyists” because petitioners of old would wait in Capitol lobbies to make their case.

Since lobbyists represent a wide array of interests, they are expected to be competent in the workings and goals of their respective employers. Representing a teachers’ union, for example, calls for some knowledge of merit pay, curriculum design and standardized tests. More than that, however, the lobbyist must be thoroughly grounded in the machinations of the legislative body to which she is petitioning. If working with an individual legislator, the lobbyist should know where that lawmaker ranks among his colleagues, what other interests are currently pressuring him, the politics of his home district and his voting history. If seeking to persuade committee staff members, on the other hand, the lobbyist must be up on the committee’s rules of procedure and legislative calendar. This is the knowledge for which the teachers’ union is paying her.

Understanding the political culture and unique rules governing Congress requires living within it. This means working on the staff of a congressman or congressional committee. These jobs are excellent training for prospective lobbyists, but require a certain amount of book learning. Although majoring in political science or public administration is not a prerequisite, some course work in such fields gives a student a theoretical grounding in the political process. The completion of relevant classes also makes a student eligible for an internship – an unpaid position that nonetheless gets a foot in the door of a congressional office. After a semester or two, the intern becomes a known quantity.

A college graduate is well-advised to cover the Hill with resumes, and to take the first offer. This may mean working as a legislative correspondent (LC) – sorting and answering constituent mail. Building a consistent record of rapid turnaround demonstrates efficiency and competence. When an opening for legislative assistant (LA) develops, the LC has a proven track record of getting the job done. Legislative assistants begin to follow policy formulation on a narrow range of issues, advising their member of Congress on voting options and positions. Once established as a policy advisor, the LA can seek a position as a legislative director for a member. In this role, the would-be lobbyist has charge of all the policy work in the office, serving as the senior policy consultant.

An alternate route for an ambitious LA is to get a position on the staff of a committee. To obtain such a plum, the LA must be appointed by the committee chair or the ranking member of the minority. This is where legislation is forged, negotiations are conducted and compromises are made. Committee staff members are responsible for creating legislation that can pass in committee as well as on the House or Senate floor. Often, staff members at this level have earned additional degrees in law or their area of responsibility. A few years in this political crucible equips a staffer for the rough and tumble world of lobbying.

The organization for which a lobbyist works will often depend on his or her policy experience. If she worked on the staff of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, she may do well to seek employment at the American Farm Bureau Federation or the Monsanto (Seed) Corporation. Time served with the Judiciary Committee might make her a good candidate to lobby for the National Rifle Association or the American Civil Liberties Union. Whatever the group, the job will often be advertised as “Government Relations” or “Federal Affairs”. A strong resume will include full immersion in the congressional community.

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