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Learning to be a Lobbyist - 2003-01-27

When Congress returned to session earlier this month, one of the first orders of business was to revise an ethics standard known as the "Pizza Rule", a law that makes it acceptable for lobbyists to send complimentary food to congressional staffers working late at night. The "Pizza Rule" is one example of the kinds of ethical issues being discussed in one of the most popular classes now being offered at American University in Washington, D.C.

"So here I came to D.C. thinking 'Oh, I'm going to make a lot of money as a lobbyist.' Turns out I did end up working on the Hill and learned that most lobbyists who really follow their heart, really don't make that much money," says Kate Arnold, a political science undergraduate. She is one of about three dozen students enrolled in the annual two-week workshop at AU's Public Affairs and Advocacy Institute, formerly known as the Lobbying Institute.

Taking advantage of its setting in the nation's capital, the class features guest speakers from the American University faculty, as well as leading lobbyists from around the country, representing corporations, trade associations, labor unions and public interest and lobbying firms. Coordinating the workshop is academic director, Patrick J. Griffin, who is also president and founder of his own lobbying firm in Washington.

Mr. Griffin says while a lobbyist is defined as a person who works to bring about the passage of laws favorable to the special interest group they represent, the job encompasses much more. "I think it takes this is a very personal town -- and relationships are a very essential component of most advocacy work here in town. But it's more than that," he says. "You have to have a good understanding of policy, you have to have a good understanding of process and how to relate those elements together. And I think, that, with the integrity of how you deal with that will constitute the foundation for being a good lobbyist."

But for many people, the term lobbyist may sound vague or confusing conjuring a kind of negative caricature of a rich, portly figure who wines and dines lawmakers, while slipping money into their pockets. American University student Bob Nardo says that image is one that is fast fading from reality.

"The people who are trying those techniques are people who are losing remarkably, from everything we learned here," he says. "The great thing about this institute is that there has been a heavy emphasis on ethics and understanding of why we do what we do and recognizing that those sort of patters have existed in the past and still do exist. But that pattern is out of style. It has almost been humorous at times the most effective lobbyists here are people that lobbied on things like NAFTA [North American Free Trade Agreement] who led up those coalitions, have actually come in and chuckled at that notion of lobbying, saying that 'In a world that's as information rich as it today, it's not possible for you to just come in and slap a few backs and pass out some cigars.'"

American University professor Patrick Griffin agrees that lobbyists come in all "shapes and colors and get all different size paychecks." "The individuals working for the Children's Defense Fund or the Sierra Club are not burdened by their salaries. These make reasonable incomes but are not exorbitant by any stretch and they are lobbying on behalf of the issues that are important to them," he says. "It is also a lucrative field for those working in the consulting business to organizations and institutions or people who work in a corporation as a permanent lobbyist here in Washington. It is a very diverse field, but I think a very essential field to decision-making in Washington."

Some of the speakers who have participated in the Public Affairs workshop have included a bureau chief for Fortune magazine; a vice president of health policy for the Institute for Higher Education Policy; and a corporate vice president of Honeywell Corporation.

Political science student Kate Arnold describes the class as "wonderful" for the opportunity to meet and talk with experts in the field. "And I mean experts, real working professionals who have been in the business of lobbying and been in the business of legislation and public policy and grass roots and coalition building and everything that you could possibly imagine under the sun. And they've been doing it here and elsewhere for years," she says. "It's priceless, really. So not only has this course has given us a lot of insights, but connections and networking possibilities. I went down my list of presenters and put a big star next to half a dozen of them that I intend to call on after I'm finished with my education to ask for a job, frankly."

Student Bob Nardo says while many of his classmates are hoping to find jobs on Capitol Hill, he plans to use the skills he's learned working outside of Washington, D.C. in school reform. He says he believes most of the students taking the class are fueled by their desire to be able to make a difference. "I wish you could take a picture and transmit it across radio because if you could look at the range of faces and the starry eyes of the idealistic twenty year-olds in here, I think you'd forget instantly about the cigar-smoking and backslapping image of a lobbyist and think of the kind of young person who you know who knocked on your door walking down the street at every election season, asking you to think about what's important to them and what's important to you," he says. "That's what public affairs policy advocacy is all about - at least, as we can see from this class, which will probably comprise the next generation of quote-unquote-lobbyists."

Bob Nardo is an undergraduate student at American University's Public Affairs and Advocacy Institute. Workshop coordinator Patrick Griffin says whether or not the students actually become lobbyists themselves, the class provides a window on how Washington works, what lobbying is about, and how it can be done with integrity and ethical foundations.