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Having Real Influence on Capitol Hill

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There is no question that lobbyists walking the halls of the U.S. Congress have some degree of influence. In fact, landmark research of nearly 3,000 Capitol Hill staff and lobbyists released by the Graduate School of Political Management (GSPM) at George Washington University measured that influence and found very different perspectives on the amount of influence lobbyists actually have.

The Congressional Communications Report asked both Capitol Hill staff and lobbyists, "In your opinion, how influential are lobbyists with Members of Congress and/or their staff?"

Congressional Staff Lobbyists

Very influential 8.1% 29.4%
Influential 30.0% 48.0%
Moderately influential 39.9% 20.5%
Slightly influential 14.0% 1.5%
Not at all influential 1.1% 0.0%
No opinion 6.8% 0.6%

Two immediate takeaways: First, lobbyists perceive themselves as significantly influential in the legislative process. Almost one-third thought they are very influential -- almost four times higher than those they lobby on Capitol Hill. Less than 1% of lobbyists either don't think they are influential or have no opinion. Capitol Hill staff, on the other hand, recognize the influence of lobbyists but gives them less credit for impacting the legislative process.

Second, the research also asked congressional staff how valuable lobbyists are to learn about policy issues. Here, lobbyists ranked much lower than one might expect. They are considered less "valuable" than other congressional staffers, national press, constituents and internet searches. However, 41% of Hill staff still ranks lobbyists as valuable/very valuable.

The results of this survey argue that Americans should not over emphasize the influence of lobbyists nor underemphasize them. But it also raises the question of how one does measure their influence on Capitol Hill? Here are my top five ways to look at this question:

1. Does the member of Congress and staff keep you or your organization "top of mind"? Could I rank myself or my organization as one of the top-10 best friends with the representative or his/her key staff?

2. Will the member of Congress or staff proactively reach out to me or the organization I align with for critical information before taking action on an issue? Do you hear from the office regularly -- by phone and email, and do they seek you out at events? Do Hill staff want to know your position without you having to provide it before a committee hearing, conference meeting or before a vote?

3. Does the representative and staff stay in close touch with you, if you or your organization is a constituent or is located in D.C.? Does he or she proactively talk about your organization's legislative priorities back home during district work periods or when your organization visits the Capitol Hill office?

4. Is the member of Congress and staff using language that "frames" you or your organization's issue in everyday conversation? While at National Association of Broadcasters, I remember having a meeting on Capitol Hill where an unsympathetic Hill staffer referred to our issue as the "performance tax," which was the way we defined the broadcasters' battle to prevent the record labels from imposing a fee on radio stations that play music. Experiences like those demonstrated how we successfully "framed" the issue and how it would be understood -- an advantage to NAB.

5. Will the representative and staff be concerned about the consequences of being against you or organization you align with? As a former Hill staffer, my job was to determine the cost/benefit to my boss if we supported or opposed a particular organization. That's why groups such as the AFL-CIO, National Rifle Association, AARP, the U.S. Chamber and others exercise influence on Capitol Hill because they effectively communicate congressional positions with their members.

The Congressional Communications Report statistically demonstrates how congressional staff and lobbyists define their level of influence. But using these five tips, whether you are a citizen advocate or registered lobbyist, will help you enjoy true influence on whatever cause or position you advocate.