Citizens Can Be Powerful Lobbyists, Too

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Saturday, October 1, 2005
There has been much worrisome news lately concerning the lobbying industry. 

Revelations about the string-pulling of super-lobbyist Jack Abramoff have pulled aside a veil that many Washington players wish had remained in place. The upcoming start of the new Medicare drug subsidy has unleashed a health-care industry feeding frenzy, as various interests try to affect to their advantage how the regulations get written and carried out. 

It is all enough to make an ordinary citizen think that the choicest fruits of our democracy are available only to those who can afford to hire people to harvest them. 

So it might seem a strange time to suggest that you and your neighbors share some significant advantages when it comes to affecting the course of events in Washington. Yet it's true. 

The lobbying industry may have a leg up in some respects — money, contacts, professional smarts and a seemingly endless supply of Super Bowl tickets and posh restaurant reservations among them — but these are not the only things that count. In fact, they can be outweighed by ordinary citizens who are resolved to make the most of their own, simple strengths. 

First among these is the fact that you are represented in Washington by a House member and two senators. In my experience, most members of Congress take very seriously their role in representing the needs and desires of constituents back home. Not only does this mean that you can get a foot in the door, it also means that — assuming they want to be re-elected — your representatives will be reluctant to ignore you. You start out with access that most lobbyists have to work to gain. 

Beyond this basic constitutional fact, members of Congress also know that the folks back home are often in a good position to understand how a piece of legislation might affect them. They are ready to listen. So when your congressman comes home, it gives you an opportunity to meet in an informal way — over a cup of coffee, for instance — that most lobbyists can only envy. 

Moreover, because members of Congress know they need to gauge the sentiments of the communities they represent, you and your neighbors possess a distinct advantage over well-funded lobbyists: If you speak directly and forcefully about how a bill might affect you and your family, you have a kind of credibility that lobbyists simply cannot match. 

And because you live in your community, not in Washington, you have direct access to other players that no member of Congress can ignore. You can appeal to your local media — which most members of Congress consider more important than the national media. And you also have the chance to join or form coalitions with groups in your area to oppose or support legislation, and even to work for or against your representative in Congress. 

Finally, you have a home-turf advantage. Most lobbyists live in or around Washington and come from places all over the United States — indeed, from all over the world. You, on the other hand, come from the same region as your House member and the same state as your senators. You have experiences, culture, slang, even friends and acquaintances in common. 

This puts you a step ahead in what may be the single most important task for any lobbyist, professional or citizen: establishing a good ongoing relationship with a member of Congress. You may not always agree with one another, but if your representative knows that you have valuable insights from your local perspective or constructive arguments to add to what he or she is hearing from others, that goes a long way toward leveling the playing field. 

I don't want to play down the influence that professional lobbyists enjoy. There are many thousands of them now, and most of them do their work with skill and diligence. But for an ordinary citizen who has something to say, this should be at worst a challenge, not a barrier. The deck is stacked against you only as long as you allow it to be. 

(Lee Hamilton is Director of the Center on Congress at Indiana University. He was a member of the U.S. House of Representatives for 34 years.)