Lobbying Capitol Hill (i.e. U.S. congressmen and senators) is an incredibly tricky and complex endeavor, which can run the gamut from coalition-building to corporate support to massive letter-writing and call-in campaigns. It all depends on your issue, as different topics/concerns resonate with different elected officials.
Take for example an initiative to provide healthier food in grade school cafeterias — sounds like a no-brainer, right? While seemingly easy, wending your way through the support-building maze in Congress is anything but. With our healthy food in schools example, the initial idea could be borne from a concerned citizen, or more likely a nonprofit association that is dedicated to stemming childhood obesity. That group would quickly ally with organic food manufacturers and other healthy food producers and form a coalition of sorts — let's call this one the Eat Smart Coalition or ESC.
ESC would organize quickly, holding numerous conference calls and meetings to identify its message, goals and friends in Congress. ESC probably would approach congressmen and senators who have large obesity rates in the respective districts or, as is often the case, have healthy food companies headquartered within their constituency.
Once ESC finds an adoptive member (or "champion") in Congress to shepherd its cause, it works with that lawmaker to draft a bill that addresses the problem and offers a legal fix. For the purposes of our example, the bill could possibly mandate a nationwide switch to sugarless sodas only in America's public school cafeterias.
To spread the word within Congress, ESC then would author a letter from its champion representative to every other member of Congress in order to raise awareness and drum-up support. Such a letter is referred to as a "Dear Colleague," and it's a powerful piece of ammunition. Once the Dear Colleague is circulated, ESC would subsequently embark on Hill-wide meetings to promote its goals and gather support, meeting with the staffs of individual offices and committees as well as other industry groups that share the same tenets/initiatives as ESC. For instance, child advocacy groups would be brought in to educate congressional staffs via presentations, briefings and one-page documents detailing ESC's goals.
As ESC's bill gathers steam, the coalition begins to gear-up for the actual nuts-and-bolts part of enacting a law: the language in the bill itself. What goes in? What stays out? Who would ever oppose such a meaningful piece of legislation?
Now the real fun begins, as the language in the bill is heavily scrutinized and opposition mounts. The bill looks seemingly innocent and beneficial, but there's always a group that will be adversely affected by some portion of a piece of legislation, and it will lobby just as hard — if not harder — to fight the bill and stop it in its tracks.
By now, our bill's champion in Congress (let's call him Congressman Letts B. Fitt) has introduced his soda-banning bill, and it has been assigned to a committee for examination and debate. Congress has many committees that cover a multitude of jurisdictional subject matters, from the judiciary to the environment to the military. The committees discuss the pros and cons of every bill that comes before them and hold open hearings with expert witnesses to get to the nuts and bolts of whatever is being proposed.
Congressman Fitt's bill is primarily health-based, so it would most likely be assigned to the Energy & Commerce Committee's Subcommittee on Health (each committee has multiple subcommittees that are specialized and streamlined in order to scrutinize legislation on a smaller scale. For example, the Judiciary Committee contains subcommittees on Intellectual Property, Immigration, Crime, etc).
In an effort to take a close look at the bill and make it as effective and fair as possible, the Health subcommittee (comprising of 18 Democrats and 15 Republicans, reflecting the larger numbers of the current ruling party), would organize a hearing on the bill in order to learn more about the effects of the legislation if enacted. The hearing would involve a panel of five or so experts, who would sit before the members and answer any and all questions about the contents of the bill.
This panel would most likely consist of a nutrition expert, perhaps a school principal who has seen firsthand the rapid weight-gain in students, a representative from the U.S. Food and Drug Administration and arguing against the bill a senior executive from a large soda company.
These witnesses would field concerns from committee members and answer each and every question to the best of their respective abilities during the hearing. Once the hearing has concluded, the congressmen and congresswomen on the committee would rewrite the bill to reflect any changes that should be implemented post-hearing and then either vote for or against the bill's passage.
This is when the real horse trading, wheeling and dealing begins.
Lobbyists for the soda company obviously want the least-restrictive language possible in this bill so their profits aren't hit too hard if sodas are banned from high school cafeterias. These lobbyists, most of them former congressional staffers, proceed to call on their still-on-the-Hill friends in order to quietly add language to the bill in the company's favor or remove language that harms it.
With 33 members of the subcommittee all being bombarded by different interest groups with different views, decisions must be made and deals worked out. If a member has both a large soda company and a huge elementary school population in his or her district, how does he or she balance the interests? The soda company might go out of business if the bill passes, and that means lost jobs. Yet the health of the students is affected by the sodas being served to them at schools, so isn't that just as important or more so? Who wins and who loses?
The time has come for a subcommittee vote. How do the members decide?
Since word of the bill first got out, member offices have been deluged by requests for time. Food-related trade associations, soda companies and press outlets have all called relevant staffers asking for intelligence and information about the bill and predictions on what will happen. Staffers have endured dozens of meetings with these "stakeholders," all the while briefing their bosses (the members of Congress) on who wants what and who should be listened to.
As mentioned earlier, members have a lot to consider in weighing how to vote, from their constituents' opinions, to the impact on businesses in their respective districts, to the spin the media could unleash on their decisions. Each member has his or her own interests to protect and districts to represent, so none of these decisions are easy.
One member may have a disproportionate number of obese children in his or her district, so voting for the bill would be a great decision toward improving the health of that district's children. However, another subcommittee member might have a large soda company headquartered in-district, so a "yes" vote on the bill would anger the company and the hundreds (if not thousands) of employees who vote to keep that member in office.
As you've probably guessed, contributions to the committee members' campaigns could be affected, as food and beverage companies might express their displeasure with a "yes" vote by sending their money elsewhere.
The time has come for members to weigh all of the considerations and decide what to do. They have all that they need to make an informed decision, having spoken to all of the relevant stakeholders and been thoroughly briefed by staff. Members know who's for the bill and against it, and it now boils down to what's best for the district.
Looming, however, are donor concerns, the whims of the subcommittee's chairperson (who always has an opinion on which way the vote should go) and, of course, the member's own beliefs and ideals. Do they offer amendments to the bill (which any subcommittee member can propose) to alter/improve/strip certain language in furtherance of their stakeholders and constituents? Do they vote for the amendments of other members? It's gut-check time.
Votes are cast and the bill narrowly makes it out of the Health subcommittee. This will make the voting at the full committee (Energy & Commerce) level even more contentious, as members who are not on the Health subcommittee have been waiting for an opportunity to be heard and offer their amendments.
The chairperson of the full committee now presides over the action and maintains procedure and order throughout the full committee markup. The Health subcommittee had 33 members offering their opinions, amendments and views, and now the musings of 24 additional individuals must be considered.
Additionally, the full committee members who are not on the Health subcommittee (but rather on other Energy & Commerce subcommittees) weren't able to ask questions at the subcommittee hearings on the bill, so they might ask the chairman to hold another hearing or set of hearings.
It is pandemonium to a degree, but nothing like what the bill will endure if it passes out of the full committee and heads to the House floor for "final passage" before the entire U.S. House of Representatives.
The bill survives the committee craziness and now heads to the main event (or, more properly stated, the House floor).
Now is the time for the remaining 378 Members of Congress to air their views on the bill, with the 57 Energy & Commerce Committee members all still in the mix as well. There is a semblance of order to be sure, as a number of rules govern the consideration of bills on the floor of the full House.
Rather than tick through all of them (there's a book-full), know that one of the most important and constrictive rules governs the offering of amendments to bills in front of the full House, and they must be germane (relevant) to the legislation being offered.
The powerful House Committee on Rules (yes, yet another committee) governs what amendments can and can't be offered, and there is much wheeling and dealing in this regard. If a member of Congress wanted to attach to our health bill an amendment granting favorable trade status to another country, it would probably be blocked and wouldn't be considered. Or would it? Again, the Rules Committee is a unique and complex animal where many deals are done.
After vigorous floor debate on our bill, with members from all over the country offering their five-minute views (as is usually the allotted time during floor debate), a vote of the full House — all 435 members — is conducted to determine final passage.
And it Passes
Final tally is 252-183, and the Eat Smart Coalition can now celebrate. So that's it, right? The bill now becomes law? Sadly, it's not even close.
The bill is now sent to Congress' other body, the U.S. Senate. It will wend a similar path through comparable committees and debates, and hopefully survive to reach the Senate floor. If passed, it must then go through additional scrutiny in a House/Senate conference, which is comprised of House Members and Senators who oversee the final details and particulars of the bill.
Then, the finished bill is presented to the President of the United States, who can either sign it into law or kill (veto) it via the powers vested in him.
The only way to override a veto is by another vote of the full House and Senate (comprised of 100 senators) for just that purpose, which must result in two-thirds of all members voting to override the president's decision (so the vote must result in at least 288 House votes and 66 Senate votes).
Should the President's veto survive, the bill dies but can be re-introduced only to undergo the same, massive trek that it's already been through to hopefully reach the President's desk and decision-making power again in the future.
Fun, eh? Who wants to register to become a lobbyist? Single-file, please. No pushing.