The real art of lobbying

While lobbying gets a pretty poor reputation, especially in the D.C. region, it’s an industry that many believe supplies an extremely important good in the world. One of the strongest proponents of lobbying in our region is Alex Vogel, chief executive officer at the Vogel Group.

ABERMAN: What do you do at Vogel Group?

VOGEL: So we’re a government affairs consulting firm. For most people, a lot of that work means lobbying. One of the fascinating things about this issue is the definition of lobbying. As you rightly indicate, we’re at best ambivalent, and a lot of people have a negative view of that word. The truth is, lobbying is the most core First Amendment activity that we have. It is going to government to address your grievances. It was specifically the idea behind behind the First Amendment, and, I think, a really important way for people and organizations to interact with government.

ABERMAN: You know, yea verily, we go back in history to the Roman Republic and forward through the Florentines and elsewhere. Lobbying has always been part of the tapestry of politics.

VOGEL: It has. People, as long as there’s been recorded history, have wanted to influence the institutions that control and run their lives. And that’s no different today.

ABERMAN: Do you think that what’s happened is lobbying, and Citizens United, and money, and it’s all gotten conflated so that we’ve sort of lost our way a bit?

VOGEL: It has gotten conflated. And unfortunately, a lot of that is based on misconceptions. The reality is that, from a legal perspective—and I got into this business, frankly, because I started my career as a lawyer working on political issues, and a lot of that was First Amendment related. I happen to believe even as a factual matter, the issue is not too much money in politics. We spend a lot more on Halloween candy every year than we do on the greatest democracy in the world. That includes all political spending.

But, because a lot of that conversation is driven around money in politics, and tends to focus on the corporate side, what I think gets lost is the idea that, first of all, one man’s freedom fighter is another man’s rebel. Lobbying encompasses every piece of advocacy that goes on. So if someone comes up and wants to argue for better treatment for pets on behalf of the Humane Society, that’s lobbying activity. The Red Cross comes and wants to advocate for more federal funding for blood drives, or different regulatory environment, that’s lobbying. And so, because most of the conversation tends to focus around large corporate activity, people assume that it is somehow dominant in that marketplace, which I don’t think is the case.

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ABERMAN: So in effect, as our societies become more politicized, there’s a need for more lobbyists. The more lobbying that occurs, people get the sense, and lobbyists are in the middle of this cyclotron. Is that what you’re seeing?

VOGEL: Well, the other reality is, because a lot of our national conversation has become extremely polarized and partisan, people assume that that somehow directly relates to lobbying activity. Both my experience, and I think most of the people who lobby on behalf of individuals, institutions, and organizations, policy is not partisan. They are trying to effect change in government outcome or behavior or structure. They are not trying to make sure that one party or the other wins an election. Those are very different things. But for reasons of probably better marketing, political consultants have a better rap than lobbyists these days.

ABERMAN: In your life, you’ve been in politics, you have been involved in it in various different ways, and now you’re lobbying. What do you think is the biggest difference between the two?

VOGEL: I have been on the, as you said, the political side of the equation. And I came up through the then, in my view, much stronger political party system. When parties exercised a lot more control. I went on to the official side and worked in government directly and have been on this side. All of them taught me valuable things about the way government works, and the way government makes decisions, and how to try and influence those decisions. The biggest difference is, and this is especially true in the context of political parties: when I worked for the Republican National Committee, all I cared about was that people with R’s in front of their name won an election. I didn’t care if you were a liberal Republican from upstate New York or a conservative Republican from Alabama. That was all I cared about. That drives, by definition, a big tent agenda, which I think is constructive.

On the lobbying side, depending on who you’re advocating for, almost by definition, your interests are much narrower. And again, frankly, devoid of the partisan piece. It’s not that there are… Yes, there are lots of lobbyists who had careers in Democratic politics or Republican politics, but their goal, their job is to advocate for their clients, who aren’t political parties, who aren’t candidates. They’re either organizations, individuals, institutions, some of them corporate. Again, they don’t care whether you have an R in front or your name, a D, an I. What they care about is the issues that are affecting their institution or the causes they care about. And that distinction is really the biggest one now.

ABERMAN: I’m a lawyer as well. And it does seem to me that, therefore, it’s not surprising that lawyers become lobbyists, because lawyers have an ethical duty as part of our license to advocate for our clients. We can’t help a client create a fraud or a crime. But it’s not our job to figure out whether the client’s point of view has legitimacy. It’s our job to advocate. Do you think that’s why so many lawyers become lobbyists?

VOGEL: You know, I think that connection between the legal industry and Washington, and you’re right, a lot of them, as am I, a lot of lobbyists are lawyers. And I think the real driver for that is that both the practice of law, especially in the government context, the regulatory context, drives the experience that is critical for people if they’re going to be in the lobbying side. What’s fascinating is, and you alluded to this, there is a practice-mandated legal structure around the legal industry that imposes certain obligations in terms of behavior. It’s fascinating.

Those don’t exist on the lobbying side. And one of the really eye opening moments for me, when I first opened a lobbying firm back a long time ago now was, we went to our insurer and got insurance for the business. And they said, what about professional liability insurance? I said, great, happy to talk about that. I’m obviously at a law firm. You have professional liability insurance related to the practice of law. There are certain standards related to conflicts and client behavior, etc. The insurance agent came back and said, there is no such policy. We can’t get one written. I said, well, why not? And they said, there’s no standard of care to be a lobbyist. Now, as a practical matter, if you’re going to be successful in this business, all you have, just as a lawyer, is your reputation and your behavior. You’re obligated to meet a standard of care to serve your clients appropriately. But it is fascinating that, from a regulatory and societal perspective, we don’t impose that on lobbying as we do on lawyers.

ABERMAN: I think maybe, and you alluded to it earlier, it’s the First Amendment issue.

VOGEL: It is. And that’s why recently in the news, there’s been a lot of discussion about a presidential candidate proposing a tax on lobbying. And my reaction to it was, on the First Amendment side, is that is the most egregious violation of the First Amendment ever. As it is, federal lobbying in many states as well, impose disclosure requirements on lobbying behavior. I can make an argument that that alone is an unfair restriction on free speech. Some of those have been challenged, some of them haven’t. But the idea that you would tax it explicitly because you believe there’s too much lobbying going on, that’s a restraint on speech.

ABERMAN: So I think that, here in the region, you know, we don’t spend enough time celebrating entrepreneur behavior in the context of lobbying or consulting, even though we lead the nation in new business formation because of those. You’re an entrepreneur. You started your own company. How do you describe what you’re doing to people? And I mean, do you feel the same as a startup entrepreneur, or somebody starting a restaurant?

VOGEL: I do. And it’s interesting. Most people, if you meet them on an airplane and they say, oh, what do you do? And you say, a lobbyist, they have a predetermined idea about what that is. The truth is, the lobbying industry, and this is true for those of us who are entrepreneurial in that context ,is very broad. I prefer government affairs consulting to lobbying, not to get away from the moniker, which I proudly embrace, but because I think it more accurately describes the range of things that people like myself and the Vogel Group do. Which, some of it is disclosed lobbying under the rules that apply, and a lot of it is much more innovative business consulting that happens to really focus on the government space.

But I think there has been a tremendous amount of innovation in the industry, just in the time that I’ve been involved. A lot of that driven by, yes, some changes in government, but more broadly changes in technology, the use of data, the various communications tools that people have now. And so, I do think that we should do more, frankly, to celebrate and acknowledge the innovation that goes on in this space. Washington and lobbying, there’s not a bunch of smoke filled rooms, as it probably once was. And I think some really interesting things are happening.

ABERMAN: So, I guess it’s fair to say if someone’s listening and thinking about a career in this industry, you wouldn’t dissuade him.

VOGEL: I wouldn’t. I think it’s a wonderful thing to do, both from a societal perspective and from a business, and an interesting perspective. I meet a lot of people who, and especially young people, who say, I’d like to do this. How do I do it? And what’s interesting is, what I used to always say to people is: great, have a career in government. Learn how government actually works. And then you can apply those skills and knowledge to this sector. The truth is, there are a lot of people who didn’t work in government, and more and more, I think the ability to understand our clients’ businesses, and what’s really driving those businesses, is equally as important as whether or not you were ever in government.

ABERMAN: Effectively, advocacy has become sales, it sounds like.

VOGEL: There is definitely a large part of it.

ABERMAN: Well, I really appreciate having an opportunity to hear an entrepreneur’s perspective on an underappreciated industry, and how lobbying fits in. Alex Vogel, chief executive officer of the Vogel Group. Alex, thanks for joining us today.

VOGEL: Thanks for having me.

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