It's a Lobbyist's Life

There were 13,740 active, registered lobbyists in Washington in 2009 according to a study by the Center for Responsive Politics (Credit: John Guenther).

While Washington natives sipped their fancy cocktails and enjoyed the air-conditioning at the D.C. Coast Restaurant in downtown, veteran lobbyist Sam Johnson* answered a phone call from his 13-year-old son.

His son was asking for permission to attend a Friday night dance sponsored by their family's local church. Johnson granted it, and then hung up.

"I'm crazy to let him go," Johnson said with a laugh while drinking his first Manhattan. "You can just feel the teen hormones flying around at those things."

As a single dad of two kids, Johnson is used to accommodating his children's needs and demands. It's a funny role reversal, though, for a veteran lobbyist who asks Congressmen to support his own requests on almost a daily basis.

We met Johnson on a five-hour plane ride from Los Angeles to Washington D.C., as he returned from a meeting with some of his trucking industry association clients. Two hours into the flight and he started jabbering away with ease, excitedly talking about his kids and showing off photos of them. By the end of the journey he offered to meet us up for a drink.

A very open and gregarious guy, he clearly enjoyed laughing and cracking jokes.

"You have to be personable with so many different personalities in Congress," he said. "You have to be able to talk to everyone."

Johnson described his job as sales gig with a narrow audience -- namely, 435 representatives and 100 senators, although he said he spends 99 percent of his time pitching to their staff members.

Elected officials worry about a million things at once, he said. They deal with the big picture, while their staff works out the details.

Johnson sees his job as educating those on the Hill and persuading them that his bills will be important to each congress member's constituency.

To get started with a piece of legislation, Johnson finds a region where one of his clients has a big presence. He next persuades the congress member of that district to sponsor his bill, and then he builds a coalition.

Every morning he looks at the "whip count" to see who supports, opposes or still sits on the fence with respect to his bill. To encourage members to hop on board, he tries to round up co-sponsors.

"It's like getting more people to work for you," said Johnson. "The more co-sponsors you get, the more momentum you get as they call their fellow members asking for support."

Building a coalition requires a lot of negotiating. Representatives often want to add their own provisions before agreeing to vote for a bill.

Johnson compared the process to assembling a puzzle: you need 218 pieces (or House votes) that mesh enough to complete a picture (or bill).

One of Johnson's favorite congressional victories was the passage of a tort reform law included in the 2005 highway bill. The final House vote was 221 to 211.

"It was tight," said Johnson, as his eyes gleamed with pride and excitement recalling how his legislation made it through.

The bill went to the Senate the next morning, both houses of Congress eventually reconciled their slightly different versions, and finally the president signed it into law. Now the statute is being contested by lawyers' groups, and Johnson anticipates it will reach the Supreme Court.

"It never ends," he said.

But instead of despairing or being annoyed by the system, Johnson absolutely gushed about what an incredible government Americans all share. He more than once apologized for sounding "cheesy" as he went on about why Congress ultimately works.

"Yes, there are some big voices with lobbying behind them," he admitted. "But all [legislators] want to get re-elected and that only happens if they vote in the best interest of their constituencies."

Johnson started his own D.C. career as a congressional staffer. He made $9,000 a year and waited tables part-time to pay the bills.

Although he said he doesn't plan on ever returning to his former gig, many of his lobbyist colleagues left their jobs this year to work for members of Congress. Critics worry the former clients of these lobbyists will exert undue influence.

Johnson disagrees and called the trend "great."

Many legislators — particularly the freshmen — and their staff members do not understand all the complexity of policy going through government, he said. He believes more experienced talent from businesses and nonprofits can benefit legislation.

Johnson also acknowledged the limits lobbyists and their clients always face within the system.

"You can walk a member up to the chamber door and talk to them about a bill, but you can't go in with them," he said. "All you can do is go back to your office and hope. In the end it's not up to me."

Johnson polished off his cocktail and offered us a ride back to our hotel. The sun had started to set. The muggy air had cooled and he drove us with the convertible top down. Blaring Rage Against the Machine while we cruised along residential streets, he enthusiastically bobbed his head to the music, sang the words and said hello to a few passers-by.


*The name of the lobbyist was changed to preserve his anonymity.

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