Lobbying: A veteran advocate details his profession

Lobbyist Bev Hansen, left, and her fellow advocates in an Assembly corridor just days before the end of the 2014 session. (Photo: Rich Pedroncelli/AP)

While most people have heard of lobbyists and have a general idea of what the lobbying profession is about, few understand the breadth and complexity of this work and the important role that lobbyists play in developing state policy.  This brief article attempts to provide a more thorough overview of the lobbying profession by addressing how lobbying has changed in an era of term limits, providing a glimpse of the size and scope of lobbying activities, describing work that lobbyists do, and providing advice regarding careers in lobbying and making oneself an attractive candidate for work in this field.

The lobbying profession has certainly changed over the years, especially during the past two decades. When I first began lobbying, long-time relationships ruled the process, there was far more bipartisan collaboration, and individual legislators wielded enormous clout. Then term limits began taking effect in the mid-1990s and a lot of that changed over the following years.

The profession has over 1,300 registered lobbyists, over 400 lobbying firms, and more than 2,500 lobbyist employers

For example, with the advent of term limits, the collegiality left the building and, in turn, the houses became more partisan in nature. With the large and constant turnover, legislators did not have the time or incentive to develop long-term relationships with members of the other house or their colleagues on the other side of the political aisle.

There is genuine hope that this will change with the revised term limits law and recently elected legislators appear headed in the right direction with their bipartisan efforts. The new terms limits law allows a legislator to serve a maximum of twelve years in either house of the Legislature. There is a belief that this change will provide time to establish working relationships with legislative colleagues and Members on the other side of the aisle.

Speaker Willie L. Brown, Jr. clearly exercised enormous control over the Assembly. Senate Republican Leader Ken Maddy was the most respected voice on horse racing. There was collaboration between Democrats and Republicans to address the California business climate. But that all began to change after the adoption of Prop. 140 in 1990. Many viewed the legislative process in a negative way.  Bipartisanship became quite limited. Collaboration to address major policy issues deteriorated.

However, with the change in the term limits law, as well as the adoption of the top-two primary system, a new crop of legislators has come into office and there once again appears a willingness to set aside partisan differences and work toward resolving policy disputes for the benefit of all Californians. It will be interesting to watch it unfold in the coming years.

In the meantime, the lobbying world continues to grow.  The profession has over 1,300 registered lobbyists, over 400 lobbying firms, and more than 2,500 lobbyist employers. Hundreds of millions of dollars are spent annually on lobbying the California Legislature and state agencies. While it is a challenging profession, there are many opportunities to influence public policy that affects businesses and individuals across the state. For those with a genuine interest in political science, the profession can be a fascinating opportunity to be involved with lawmaking and elected officials.

In many ways, lobbyists operate like lawyers do, just at a Capitol hearing room with elected officials, instead of in a courtroom with an appointed judge.

Some things have not changed over the years.  Lobbying still requires personal relationships, subject matter experience and walking the halls of the State Capitol. The profession has simply required more of these traits than in the past because of the constant turnover and the continual need to educate legislators and their staff. Fundamentally, lobbyists represent real interests of real people and lobbyists play a critical role in providing information for the process to work effectively.

What is a lobbyist? The Political Reform Act of 1974 defines a lobbyist as a person paid $2,000 or more in a calendar month to influence legislative or administrative action.  What is legislative or administrative action?  It is a bill or a regulation. Typically a lobbyist provides information and attempts to influence policy-makers to change or not change the law, either by legislation or regulation.

There are essentially four types of lobbyists: those that work “in-house” for a company; those that work at an association; those that contract with a lobbyist employer; and, those that work for the government. What is the typical background of the Capitol’s advocates?  Usually they have acquired experience and contacts in the Capitol, and then moved to the private sector. Some have a legal background, but that is not a prerequisite.

In many ways, lobbyists operate like lawyers do, just at a Capitol hearing room with elected officials, instead of in a courtroom with an appointed judge.  For example, successful lobbyists employ written and verbal advocacy, negotiation and compromise skills, all of which are necessary and common in policymaking settings.

A successful lobbyist is knowledgeable regarding the subject matter of legislation being worked on; he or she has relationships with key legislators and policy committee staff, as well as executive branch appointees; the lobbyist understands the politics and policy regarding the subject matter of the bill or regulation; and, he or she can move legislation through the process.

The number of lobbyists and the interest groups employing them grew rapidly by the 1980s due to California’s changing economy (i.e., new industries were created)…

Commentators consider lobbyists to be an “institution” in the public policy arena.  They are often referred to as the “Third House.”  Lobbyists help set the agenda by bringing bill ideas to legislators, which are termed “sponsored” bills.  Lobbyists are also “actors” in the legislative and rulemaking processes because they play a key role in supporting and opposing measures.

The lobbyist provides information to legislators, appointed officials and their staff.  The lobbyist advocates for his or her client.  A lobbyist contributes to the lawmaking and rulemaking processes because these processes are fundamentally deliberative ones which require knowledge and effective advocacy.  A lobbyist can contribute to these processes by explaining the impact of legislation or regulations on his or her client.  Simply put, lobbying is advocacy of a point of view, either by groups or individuals.

Lobbying involves more than just advocacy. Its principal elements include:

  • researching and analyzing legislation or regulatory proposals;
  • monitoring and reporting on developments;
  • attending legislative or regulatory hearings;
  • working with coalitions interested in the same issues; and
  • educating government officials regarding the implications of various law changes.

Lobbying is a legitimate and necessary part of our democratic political process. Government decisions affect people and organizations and information must be provided in order to produce informed decisions by elected and appointed officials. Public officials cannot make fair and informed decisions without considering information from a broad range of interested parties. All sides of an issue must be explored in order to produce equitable government policies.

Who are the biggest employers of lobbyists?  Historically, those subject to state regulation have hired the most lobbyists.  The number of lobbyists and the interest groups employing them grew rapidly by the 1980s due to California’s changing economy (i.e., new industries were created); voters adopted Prop 13, which shifted school and local government financing to state and away from locals; and, there began a wave of regulatory activism affecting private sector businesses.

Identifying an experienced, reputable lobbyist suited to an organization’s needs is imprecise at best. A veteran lobbyist should have a political network including both executive and legislative branch contacts. He or she should have a stellar reputation among both peers and lobbying contacts. A lobbyist should have experience with the legislative committees or government agencies with jurisdiction over the issue areas to be lobbied.

Some of the most successful lobbyists are ones who have worked both in the Legislature and in the executive branch, particularly the Governor’s Office.

There are pros and cons to consider in deciding which background a lobbyist should have: law degree, public relations credentials, legislative or executive branch experience?  The answer to this question makes sense based upon what you are looking for in a lobbyist.  Retaining a Sacramento lobbyist is a very individual decision with few concrete guidelines. But it should be recognized that no single professional has the skill to resolve every lobbying problem. It is also important to be aware that no lobbyist enjoys a 100% success rate; there are always excellent lobbyists on the losing end of every legislative skirmish.

What is the best training to become a lobbyist? There is no guaranteed route to a lobbyist position, but the most common approach is someone having worked in the Legislature either for a legislator or a committee. Working in the Capitol to develop experience, contacts and subject matter expertise is the best route to take. Having legal experience in particular areas is also a valuable approach, but it is not a prerequisite.

Some of the most successful lobbyists are ones who have worked both in the Legislature and in the executive branch, particularly the Governor’s Office. They have been able to see the process from the “inside,” developed subject matter experience, and have made valuable contacts in those positions. They understand how the Legislature functions and how to successfully maneuver bills through the process.

What types of lobbying jobs are available?  There are government lobbying jobs at specific agencies or departments. There are private sector jobs at individual companies, nonprofits, associations, or at a lobbying firm (generally referred as “contract lobbying”). The legislative liaison jobs with the state report to the Governor’s Office and lobby on behalf of the Administration to advance its interests. These jobs involve work with legislation and the budget, as well as within a regulatory environment, with a focus on the jurisdiction of that agency or department.

Another approach in finding a lobbying job is whether there is a particular subject matter or interest group that interests an individual.  If there is, such as an environmental group, then that might be a logical place to apply for a lobbyist position as this would enable the individual to lobby on a subject that interests him or her.

When I started 20 years ago, I was told that a trade association was a great place to start because you are given immediate responsibility and are involved in key public policy debates. You are often leading coalitions and responsible for organizing lobbying efforts on major bills pending before the Legislature. I found that to be very good advice for beginning my career.

What are the best ways to find a lobbying job?

  • Word of mouth
  • Recommendations from other lobbyists
  • Capitol Morning Report website
  • Capitol Daybook website

What are some ways to make an individual a more attractive candidate for a lobbying job?  First, understand the profession and the players.  Get to know as many of those persons as possible.  Second, have an attractive resume with substantive experience.  Third, know how best to sell your attributes to a potential employer.  Fourth, have good references that can make the difference in you getting the job you want.

The most common recommendations to aspiring lobbyists include:

  • Get a staff position at the Legislature or in an administrative agency
  • Develop areas of expertise in policy matters
  • Thoroughly understand the legislative process
  • Develop relationships with individuals inside and outside the building

Ed’s Note: Chris Micheli is a Principal with the Sacramento-based government relations firm of Aprea & Micheli, Inc. He has been an attorney and registered lobbyist for the past twenty years.


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