Influence Game: Lobbyists Learn to Tap Grass Roots to Persuade

Article excerpt

First of two parts.

As the camera drifts over a world map, a large pair of scissors starts snipping away at developing countries. First China, then India and Algeria. A new global-warming treaty will force Americans to "drastically" cut energy use, the narrator warns, while allowing these countries to spew greenhouse gases without limit.

"It's not global, and it won't work," the ad concludes.

The pre-election "scissors" ad, running on such cable channels as CNN and MSNBC, is part of a nationwide campaign waged by the Global Climate Information Project - business and labor interests opposed to the global-climate treaty negotiated in Kyoto, Japan, last December.

It's also a case study in how the art of Washington lobbying has changed during the past five years.

Money, connections and personal persuasion are still the basic tools of influence in Washington. But more and more, lobbyists are focusing their efforts outside the Beltway, using sophisticated mass media and marketing tactics to forge "grass-roots" campaigns to shape public opinion and influence members of Congress.

"In the old days you would sit down with a member and say, `Here's the language I would like inserted in a bill,' " says Dane Strother, a Democratic political strategist with the D.C. consulting firm Strother, Duffy, Strother.

"That still occurs. But on the big issues like health care reform, banking reform, you create an entire campaign, much like you would run for office. You get a media consultant, and you get a pollster, and you hire lobbyists. You hire a campaign manager, and you affect a member by going to his constituents."

Interest groups ranging from the National Association of Manufacturers and American Association of Retired Persons to the Hooters restaurant chain spend roughly $1.2 billion annually on the Washington influence business.

That money is spread out among 1,851 organizations that do their own lobbying in Washington and 1,427 outside lobbying firms here, according to the D.C.-based Center for Responsive Politics. Although 9,198 active lobbyists registered in Washington as of the middle of last year, veterans of the industry say the actual count of workers in the lobbying industry is many times that number.

"What [political action committees] were becoming [back in the 1970s], issue advocacy is becoming today," says R. Bruce Josten, executive vice president of government affairs at the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. "Increasingly, the debates are trying to be shaped and trying to be framed and trying to be moved outside this town - to then bring them into this town."

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The biggest reasons for this shift in political strategy, lobbyists report, are the high turnover in Congress during the past five years, new lobbying laws and the growing influence of the mass media.

Many of the new members, especially in the House, pay less attention to well-connected lobbyists and more to the poll numbers in their own districts.

"The majority of them go home on weekends, and they do a lot of town hall meetings at home," Mr. Josten said. "These seem simplistic, but these are significant differences in terms of how the game ultimately gets played out."

Republicans threw a wrench into the old system by imposing term limits on committee chairmen and tightening restrictions on gifts to members of Congress.

"You don't have the days when the chairman of Ways and Means like [Illinois Democrat Dan] Rostenkowski can just ram through whatever he wants," notes Rodney C. Hoppe, a former aide to Rep. Thomas J. Bliley Jr., Virginia Republican, who now works for the Washington lobbying firm Oldaker, Ryan, Phillips & Utrecht. "There's not two or three guys running the House."

At the same time, lawmakers are under more scrutiny from a growing number of media outlets, from C-SPAN to talk radio and political TV talk shows. …