The Lobbying Game: Bringing the Catholic View to Politics Is Science and an Art

By Jones, Arthur | National Catholic Reporter, June 3, 2005 | Go to article overview

The Lobbying Game: Bringing the Catholic View to Politics Is Science and an Art


Jones, Arthur, National Catholic Reporter


Lobbyists for major Catholic organizations may get a good night's sleep. But otherwise they rarely rest. For they might miss something in the fine print of pending legislation.

It is a Friday evening in Washington in late June 2004. Linda Smith, Catholic Charities USA director for health and welfare policy, has noticed that the House of Representatives has the $7 billion Family Opportunity Act scheduled. The vote could be called at any time.

The act was presumed to be non-controversial. Catholic Charities supported it. The act would allow middleclass families to pay premiums to get Medicaid coverage for their severely disabled children who are otherwise unable to get insurance. So far so good.

Until Smith saw how it was going to be funded: by a $7 billion cut in Medicaid services for foster children and other vulnerable populations.

Recalling that weekend, Sharon Daly, Catholic Charities' vice president for social policy, said, "Expand the act by all means, but not by reducing care to children who have already been abused, neglected, abandoned or taken away from their parents. They have enormous medical needs."

What Catholic Charities staff did that weekend was key; how they did it shows the Catholic lobbying system at work. First the tactic, then the end product. Daly said that by pulling on all their resources--including pro bono help from Georgetown Law School and its federal legislation clinic--they were able to put together rapidly a packet to describe the act's legislative history. "People there worked all weekend with us," she said. "Monday morning Linda and I worked the phones, calling other groups working on the issue, and talking to Democratic and Republican members, because we have relationships with them on a whole range of issues as we'd worked to improve Medicaid for foster care children."

The Catholic Charities report reminded members that Congress had always intended to have the federal government reimburse the states at a higher rate for these additional Family Opportunity Act services. Whereas what the Bush administration had led Congress to believe as it pushed through this middle-class proposal was that the act was just closing a loophole.

The Republicans were persuaded not to bring the act up for a vote. Eight months later Congress is still looking for some other source of revenue to pay for the expansion.

Lobbying is a science, and an art form. As a science it is fact-driven: In politics information is power. It is an art form both in knowing what to do with the information and in the development of essential bipartisan relationships. In Washington insider parlance, lobbyists frequently wear a cloak labeled "government relations," "government liaison," "government affairs" or "advocacy."

The three major Catholic organizations most focused as lobbyists are the Catholic Health Association, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Charities. This article introduces them and their missions, and provides a sense of some of the priorities.

It's the recess at the end of the first session of the Congress. There are a half dozen people around the conference table in Suite 1000, 1825 Eye Street NW, Washington office of the St. Louis-based Catholic Health Association. The topic is Catholic access to the administration and Congress.

Lobbyists don't always get what they want, but "we're never defeated, we just have temporary setbacks," said a laughing Michael Rodgers, public policy and advocacy vice president for the association. (Rodgers is now currently acting association president/CEO.)

According to then-president/CEO Fr. Michael Place, when administrations change and congressional makeup shifts, lobbyists have to adjust the pieces to find a new balance. Place, who was president of Catholic Health Association for eight years, said, "Each White House has its own chemistry. Clearly, in the Clinton White House, health care was a priority. …

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