Notes From the Washington Lobbying Front Lines

Notes From the Washington Lobbying Front Lines

I've been covering the food industry for many years, but there was at least one thing I'd never done: attend a lobbying session on Capitol Hill.

So as a journalist and political science major, I jumped at the recent opportunity to join a major association, The American Bakers Association, in lobbying visits during such a historic time in Washington. These visits were part of the Public Policy Forum of ABA's Executive Leadership Development Committee.

Granted, this is a bit different than joining Food Marketing Institute or National Grocers Association on the lobbying trail because ABA's stances aren't from the retail perspective. Nevertheless, most food industry associations are following similar legislation in this first year of the Obama administration, including health care, food safety and card check.

ABA did a great job of prepping newbies for visits to lawmakers, including how to present (don't overstate your case and be realistic about expectations). Participants were schooled in the specifics of issues and given talking points (such as for food safety: “ABA opposes increasing FDA records access to anything more than what is required in the 2002 Bioterrorism Act.”).

Attendees were told to think of the meeting as a sales call, and to remember to “close the sale” by asking for support on particular issues.

Those not familiar with Capitol Hill etiquette were instructed on what to expect. For example, while it's important to be on time, don't be disappointed if lawmakers or their staffs are not (it seems Washington runs like a doctor's office). Moreover, if your meeting ends up taking place in a hallway instead of a conference room, don't take that as a bad sign about your clout. Rather, it's a statement on how little space is available.

There were tips about how to follow up afterward. Bakers were told to mail letters, but also to send electronic versions because mail to Washington is truly snail mail: It's irradiated for security reasons and subject to long delays.

My visits to the Hill were eye-opening. I attended meetings at the offices of two senators and one representative. These were run by lawmakers' staffers, who in all cases were highly engaged and thoughtful. They were well briefed but open to asking about things they didn't know, which may be old news to veteran lobbyists but highly encouraging to rookies.

Perhaps most important, ABA, and no doubt the other industry associations, understand what resonates with legislators. For example, ABA made sure to point out when a member lives or works in the legislators' district, which makes all the difference.

Lobbying is a process that's actually improved over the years. For instance, ethics rules now bar lobbyists from taking legislators out for meals, a change that makes the process more professional.

It's hard to know right away if a lobbying visit changed minds. But that may be beside the point because winning doesn't appear to be a one-shot deal in this game. Rather, ABA lobbyists say it's about building relationships over time. Now, that's something suppliers, retailers and anyone else in the food industry can relate to.

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