Lobbying: An Insider's Take

Howard Marlowe in his K Street Office (John Guenther)Howard Marlowe is a lobbyist's lobbyist. That is to say, he's the president of the American League of Lobbyists. For 27 years he has also been the head of Marlowe & Co., a small firm with only 10 employees and about 45 clients that caters mostly to city and county governments.

We recently sat down with Mr. Marlowe at his office on K Street in Washington, D.C. He speaks in a soft, gentle voice, with a subtle twang audible on words like 'client.' He says the twang comes from his wife, a Southerner (he's from upstate New York). He's got big teeth and art deco glasses, the kind you might see on the cover of an Ayn Rand novel. He was once a teacher and later legislative director for Senator Vance Hartke of Indiana.

Marlowe said he takes ethics very seriously — more seriously than most other lobbyists. And he's proud of his job, proud to have helped his clients get things built — like better beaches and sewage treatment plants. What follows is a peek into the world of lobbying in the words of a lobbyist.

Our first municipal client was a beach client, the city of Venice in Florida. Doesn't quite have the muscle factor to it, because it's basically a retirement community, mostly rich people. They needed a beach, and I told them when they got the beach, which they did, I wanted to have a nameplate underneath the public toilet.

It's there. But of course nobody will ever know it.

Why are we needed? My job is to help the system work for the people who employ me.

Take the city of Hendersonville, North Carolina, one of our clients. Or the city of San Clemente in Orange County. At the beginning of the year, we sit down with them and say, "OK, what is it that is important to you that you want to accomplish?" And since we represent cities and counties, most of what they want is money.

So they list their projects. Let's suppose they list a new water sewage treatment plant. And they need $15 million for it. Scratch. Off the list. We can't get it, because Congress has not, since the 1980s, provided any decent funding for water and sewer infrastructure. In other words, we tell them what is not realistic.

If they say, "Oh, I've got a movie theater that's been out of use for the last 30 years. We really want to create a community theater" — great idea. What have you done, what money have you put into it first? Because we have a better chance if we can show what they've done, to use the trite but accurate phrase that they're looking for a hand up and not a handout.

We try to get them to have only three priorities. Because asking their own congressional delegation to help them with more than three priorities is not realistic. We are basically trying to train our clients. That sounds like a condescending term. I don't mean it, but we prep them. We want to help them convey the story about what's important to them and to their community. And we want them to be sure that they've made those points while they're here. That they haven't veered from whatever the points are that they want to make about their projects.

We're there before they get there, though. We're working with staff who are twenty-somethings. And they're very dedicated people, but they have a lot to learn about any of our issues. So we're there to educate, so that the staff for the congressman or woman knows what the issues are. Ninety-five percent of lobbying is done with staff people. Lobbyists don't like to give that [fact]. It's sort of like a dirty little secret. We'd like to tell you that we're all dealing with members of Congress.

When appropriations requests are made — these are earmark requests — when a member of Congress makes the request, we will then go into the appropriations subcommittee and start talking about it. It's a piece of paper. And we need to take that piece of paper and bring it to life.

We're working with appropriations subcommittee staffers to try to make sure that they're keeping us in mind. We politely pester: "Hey Roger, do you remember, we've got that project that you submitted. How are things going in the process right now? Is it the kind of thing that the subcommittee's going to be favoring?"

"Well, I don't know, I haven't heard yet from the chair."

OK. Then I'll come back. And just wait. And unfortunately, we've got a lot of time to wait. After that, for an appropriations lobbyist, it's a lot of prayer, because there's a limit to what we can do.

I'm not bothered by earmarks. Obviously it's a large part of our business, so I'm not going to be bothered by it, but I don't think from a public-interest point of view I'd be bothered by it. I would [be less wary of] an elected official who is responsible for giving out money or oversight of who's giving out money than I would be of what Reagan used to call "pointy headed bureaucrats."

A note: Earmarks are temporarily verboten in Washington, thanks to congressional Republicans and to President Obama. Of course, congressmen are getting around this self-imposed rule by writing letters to and calling government agencies directly, asking that money be set aside for certain projects. Marlowe himself employs people on staff who specialize in "grant writing."

Republican members of Congress, some of them the newly elected conservative folks, have been saying, "I want to do everything I can to help you." We ask at that point, will they write a letter in support? And the answer's always been uniformly yes. I have not yet seen them telling us that they're doing "phone-marking," but being the great country it is, I don't doubt that that's happening. Is there anything bad about it? No, but... it's gone shady here. And the fact is that when you move things to the shade, it is not good for the public.

Over the years that I've been in Washington, I've seen a disturbing trend. If I want to see a member of Congress or his legislative staff person outside of the office, I can't take him to lunch. I can't buy him a bottle of water in the cafeteria. I can give $2,500 and go to a political fundraiser.

Back in the day, you go to a political fundraiser, a member of Congress would talk to you about what a difficult race he or she was going to have, who their opponent was, and how they only won by 65 percent last time. But now you see lobbyists lined up talking about their issues, and members of Congress encouraging it: "What do you need? What's on your mind? How's that issue going?"

Everything there is going on in the darkness. We may know that Howard Marlowe gave money to this member of Congress, but the fact that I showed up there to discuss that issue — it's the kind of thing that nobody's addressing. Members of Congress need money and there's nothing wrong with them having political fundraisers. But what is wrong is the blurring of lines between the legislative and political processes.

We lobbyists have an incestuous relationship with them. They need us for money. We're an easy source, because we're here. We're captive. They can call me on the phone: "Howard, you know, I only won by 70 percent last time..."

We lobbyists believe that it's good to brag: "I know Congressman Tony, I saw him the other day at the Capitol Hill Club and we chatted about this or that. One of his kids just got thrown in jail..." Or whatever it is. These are things that make you sound, not only to the folks around you, but to potential clients, like you're a big shot. So we need them for that.

That's the incestuous relationship.


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