An article written by Thorn Run Partners’ Stuart Chapman and Andrew Rosenberg was featured in the Political Science Applied journal last month. The piece, entitled “Lobbying Congress in Today’s Washington,” examines the shift in the perception of lobbyists in Washington, D.C., from “legislation crafters,” to intricate policymakers rooted in advocating for a client’s cause. Chapman and Rosenberg outline the transformation of modern lobbying, suggesting a form of legislative action that is guided by policy specialists who use expansive knowledge, strong communication with various organizations, and recruit the interests of stakeholders in the drive for change. The authors note that this approach to advocacy operations has helped Thorn Run achieve sector-leading growth, making TRP far from a one-dimensional firm.
The article in its entirety can be read below.
“Lobbying Congress in Today’s Washington”
Up until fairly recently, quintessential American lobbying looked a lot like the stereotyped renditions of how legislation is crafted: smoke-filled rooms where men of influence share intelligence and seek favors. In this world, superlobbyists reigned supreme, including such luminaries as Tommy Boggs, the son of the late House Majority Leader Hale Boggs of Louisiana, who started the renowned Patton Boggs law firm, a Washington, DC institution. Boggs, as famed Washington Post reporter Carl Bernstein recounted in a 1998 Vanity Fair expose, was a master of wining and dining Members of Congress.
Bernstein tells how Boggs fashioned a hunting camp on Maryland’s Eastern Shore of the Chesapeake Bay, which became a weekend destination for many Members of Congress seeking Boggs’ largesse – fundraising and otherwise. It was, in Bernstein’s words, a “rite of passage” for them to join this event because, being part of Boggs’ world, meant that they had ascended into the Washington establishment. Of Boggs and his massive personality, Bernstein writes, “No other lobbyist entertains with his sense of theater and extravaganza effortlessly mixing the personal and the political.”
Boggs’ goal was the same as that of today’s Washington advocates: educate and influence policymakers on the merits of a client’s cause. But the means by which that education occurs today is drastically changed. Whereas Boggs, and men like him, worked in those metaphorical smoke-filled rooms, an effort today to reach the same outcome often looks more like a political campaign: a strategic endeavor that could involve off-Hill “grassroots” and “grasstops” outreach; a public relations campaign involving the gathering of data and development of message maps; and, of course, traditional Hill advocacy. In short what had been relatively simple has become much more textured, layered, and complex.
This trajectory is being driven by a number of relatively new dynamics, including aggressive ethics legislation and the opportunities borne by the pervasiveness of technology and the concomitant revolution in communication in the political world.
Two decades ago, a company needing help hired a contract lobbyist such as Boggs. But the days of blatant transactional influencing are hardly as simple as they used to be. Whereas until the mid-2000s, Members of Congress and staff could be regaled with free dinners at some of Washington’s finest restaurants, ethics legislation over the last decade has delegitimized these casual, opportunistic encounters. Following some major influence peddling scandals, the 2007 Honest Leadership and Open Government Act cut into those gifts and curtailed the casual intermingling, with all of its shortcomings – but also benefits.
The unintended consequence of that legislation, however, was to accelerate a trend already in place since the 2002 McCain-Feingold Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act. McCainFeingold and its reliance on Political Action Committees to drive greater transparency meant that access to Members (and, to a lesser degree, Staff) would now be heavily channeled into fundraising occasions. Right or wrong (and there certainly is a lot of nostalgia for the “good old days”), the intention was to shine more sunlight into the interactions between Members and the people who advocate before them.
In addition to the ethics legislation, other cultural shifts have changed the Washington landscape, requiring new skills and providing new opportunities for businesses and others with business before the Congress. Members of Congress expect that advocates will provide them with facts and figures about the impact of any proposal on their constituents, and more often than not, a successful effort means engaging real stakeholders from the Member’s district or state. This requires, as a result, the need for stakeholder recruitment and the formation of authentic coalitions, all of which takes modern communications and management capabilities.
Not surprisingly, a new breed of American lobbying shops has emerged to reflect this sort of multifaceted approach to advocacy. And while some clients continue to employ a basket of specialized consultants – traditional lobbyists, communications pros, and subject matter experts – the more sophisticated, and pennywise, often recognize the benefits of having all of these capabilities in a single, unitary operation. This is the sort of approach we have taken at our firm and has been chiefly responsible for our sector-leading growth over the past seven years.
While no single firm or issue-based campaign defines the business of American lobbying today, there is no question that in the era of instantaneous communications, social media, and new ethics laws, the best “lobbyists” are playing chess on a three-dimensional board. The days of guaranteeing success by hiring Tommy Boggs to invite his friends to sit in a duck blind and sip whiskey are over. You have to learn chess.