Lobbyists: Working with the Fourth Branch of Government

Lobbyists: Working with the Fourth Branch of Government

150 150 Jim Murphy

Lobbyists have a public image about equal to that of used car salesmen — or perhaps as low as politicians! Like most images, there is some basis for it but it really paints with a broad brush a group of people who can be very valuable to us in the legislative process. I think their negative image is because they have historically had a higher level of access to the process, especially considering the D.C. experience. However, with the internet, public access to bills, committee processes, and members has really empowered the average citizen. But that is for another article.

First and foremost, lobbyists are advocates who provide us accurate information that supports their position. You are probably aware of traditional advocacy organizations of teachers, realtors, engineers and the like but there are over 900 registered lobbyists in Austin. The Texas Catholic Conference has one, so do the cigar companies, and the bike riders. Plus there are the government relations staff (not officially lobbyists) for most of our cities, counties, school districts and colleges.

Depending on an organization’s size and the issue at hand, two types of lobbyists are used. In-house lobbyists are staff who work for one organization but perhaps on many issues through a session. They have a certain element of continuity. Then there are the contract lobbyists, the hired guns, who are brought in instead of hiring staff or to supplement them. These vary from large firms to solo practitioners who just work for a handful of clients.

Every lobbyist, even the nice retired teacher who comes to visit, has an agenda. We make sure we know who they represent and learn what the “other side” on an issue will say. In fact, the better lobbyists tell you their opponent’s arguments right up front which allows them to counter these points even before they are made. The issues we address are complex and dynamic. More and better information really helps us make our decisions.

We don’t complete our research with what we are told or brought. Our staffs, the committee clerks, and other members carrying or opposing legislation all give us more information. Plus there is testimony on each bill in committee and reports are compiled on every bill that heads to the floor. As a juror does, we sift through it all, use our own values and judgment, and make decisions.

We get phone calls, emails, letters and personal meetings (time permitting) from the lobby (the group referred to as the fourth branch of government). But sometimes the most valuable and timely information comes right outside the House chamber (aka “the pit”) as we enter and leave. Or it can be in a hallway outside a committee meeting. And when my doctor, dentist, or insurance agent calls me on behalf of their industry, that gives me an extra incentive to listen. No other lobbyist can match the influence of a constituent or friend.

Most of the professional lobbyists are former members, House or Senate staffers, clerks, or agency staffers. As a consequence, they can more then give us data. They also provide information about how things work, are supposed to work, or did in the past. History is a critical factor and being one of the newer members, this is particularly helpful to me. Knowing the context of an issue, and the past politics, really increases my ability to better serve our community. We can also learn a bit more about what is happening in other committees and how the same issue in which we are interested in faring in the Senate.

In the process of considering bills, I can find out which lobbyists are active supporters and team up with them to build a broader base of support. Today we had people come forward in committee hearings to support my bills which would help increase participation in dual credit classes (HB1268) and for building new hike and bike trails (HB 1943). More on this in a future column, but having these lobbyists on our team will help down the line as things here move quickly on many fronts. And with our 82nd Session now half over, we need to get all the help we can get — even if it is from those used car dealers.