Pandemic times place hardships on legislative lobbying, particularly for ordinary citizen advocates

December 14, 2020 12:01 am

A hallway in the Capitol crowded with citizen and corporate lobbyists during the legislature’s 2019 session. (Ned Oliver/Virginia Mercury)

Suppose your livelihood depends on persuading policymakers to draft legislation and adopt regulations to favor an interest or a client. It’s called lobbying, defined in dictionaries as organized efforts to influence legislators. It’s been around since the inception of the Republic, and it has historically required proximity and access to people in power. The very name derives from advocates who would crowd the corridors of power — lobbies — for some fleeting face time with policymakers.

Now, imagine that the whole in-person proximity part vanishes.

That’s exactly what has happened to Virginia’s corps of lobbyists accustomed to their midwinter encampments on Capitol Square thanks to the coronavirus pandemic and the General Assembly’s decision to largely meet virtually in the 2021 session that convenes in less than a month.

While seasoned veteran lobbyists who’ve plied the hallways, galleries, committee rooms and offices for decades have negotiated the shift to varying degrees, rookies with few connections and resources and particularly ordinary Virginians with pressing, poignant causes are at a serious disadvantage.

Gone, at least for the coming socially distanced session, are the days when a lobbyist could saunter by a lawmaker’s Capitol Square office and pop in for an intricately rehearsed impromptu pitch for or against an obscure clause in a bill that could mean millions to a client’s bottom line. In its place is a numbing profusion of texts, emails, livestreams, videoconferences and phone calls unfathomable a year ago.

The challenge it creates to effective advocacy on behalf of clients, say several longtime lobbyists interviewed over the past week, is getting noticed among the hundreds of emails that pack the inboxes of legislative leaders and senior administration officials in an hour when the legislative session is in full throttle. That’s where longtime personal relationships — the ability to shoot a text to a committee chairman’s private cell phone alerting him or her to an urgent, just-emailed document and setting up a conference call with industry experts the next day — pays decisive dividends. Information and access are the currency of the realm, and those who have it start every inning on third base, nobody out and the clean-up batter stepping to the plate.

Unlike most of the economy, the pandemic has left the lobbying industry largely unscathed. Solo practitioners and those connected to prestigious firms say business is good. Turns out that monied interests will pay what it takes, particularly in challenging times, to secure effective advocacy for their priorities, according to the lobbyists, none of whom could discuss client work or finances for the record.

For causes that rely heavily on compelling face-to-face interaction between real, everyday folks and their delegates and senators, the pandemic has created daunting obstacles. These are groups in need of help from their government but unable to pay platoons of elite lobbyists to shepherd their causes through the legislative gauntlet.

I’ve seen the real-people approach applied by a number of movements. They include textile and furniture workers whose jobs disappeared when their Southside factories shut down and headed overseas thanks to global trade deals in the 1990s. I saw it in anguished parents of autistic children who pleaded for years to have their children’s conditions covered by insurance before they finally succeeded. I have seen members of gun rights groups noisily assert encroachments on their Second Amendment rights even as they freely prowled the grounds with war weapons slung from their shoulders. I’ve seen it from mothers and fathers who lost children to a heavily armed madman on April 16, 2007, at Virginia Tech, weeping as they begged legislators for commonsense restrictions on the commonwealth’s permissive firearms laws.

Sometimes, it is enormously effective when hundreds of ordinary people meet their legislators and speak firsthand of personal grief and hardship. Sometimes, it’s counterproductive. I have seen lawmakers’ reactions range from teary eyes and sympathetic hugs to clenched fists and sharp words.

No group finds more sympathetic ears at the General Assembly when its officers and members turn out for their in-person lobby day than those which represent military veterans — the American Legion, the Veterans of Foreign Wars among the better known. Together, they present a united front every year behind a handful of proposals under the auspices of an umbrella organization known as the Joint Leadership Council of Veterans Service Organizations. They’re very effective.

In November, Virginia voters resoundingly approved an amendment to the state Constitution that affords disabled veterans a break on personal property taxes they pay on an automobile. That measure had to win passage in two consecutive legislative sessions separated by a House election to make it onto last month’s ballot. A similar constitutional amendment a few years earlier gave disabled vets a real estate tax waiver. And last year, the General Assembly passed a new law that allows additional time for the ballots of active-duty troops posted overseas to arrive after an election. Income tax breaks for disabled vets remains a priority carried over from last year.

How do they advocate for their current priorities?

“It’s very different trying to Zoom (videoconference) with individual delegates and senators. We have to do it but it’s not satisfactory,” said Dan Boyer, an unpaid lobbyist representing the VFW on the JLC, who drives four hours each way from his home near Galax to Capitol Square four or five times most sessions. Probably not so many in 2021.

“When we would have our lobby day, I’d stop in and meet with maybe 16 people — delegates, senators or their aides — and they had seen those VFW and American Legion hats everywhere up and down the halls all day, and it made a difference,” said Boyer, an Air Force veteran who served three tours in Vietnam in the 1960s.

Lobbyists are, by necessity, keeping their wish lists lean, focusing on clients’ priorities because of the limitations of remote lobbying but also because of new bill pre-filing deadlines and a change that will likely make the already short 2021 session even briefer. 

Sessions in even-number years run for 60 days, longer than odd-number sessions because new biennial budgets have to be built from scratch in years evenly divisible by two. Odd-number years, without the heavy lifting of budget writing, traditionally run for 46 days.

The state Constitution, however, prescribes only 30 days for the odd-year sessions while giving the House and Senate the option of adding 15 days on a two-thirds vote of each chamber. Since the last overhaul of the state Constitution in the early 1970s, the vote to extend was a foregone formality. For 2021, however, Republican leaders of both chambers say GOP members will oppose the 15-day extension, leaving the House and Senate well short of their two-thirds majorities and possibly setting up an unprecedented final adjournment before Valentine’s Day.

No matter the metric, 2021 will be a wildly different winter session as lobbyists do what they can from a distance and long for a post-COVID world and whatever that new normal will be. They know that a pandemic hangover is going to last a while, but that this too shall pass — maybe like a kidney stone, but it will pass.

CORRECTION: This post has been updated to correct the traditional length of Virginia’s “short” legislative session. It is 46 days.

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Bob Lewis
Bob Lewis

Bob Lewis covered Virginia government and politics for 20 years for The Associated Press. Now retired from a public relations career at McGuireWoods, he is a columnist for the Virginia Mercury. He can be reached at [email protected]