Am I the Next Jack Abramoff?
In which I discover that any idiot—even me—can be a Washington lobbyist.
Sure, being a lobbyist looks easy (except for entering a guilty plea). If you were like Jack Abramoff, and you wanted to promote your clients' gambling interests, you'd take a member of Congress golfing in Scotland or give him your skybox tickets. Or if you were a defense industry lobbyist, you'd give a congressman a $7,200 Louis-Philippe commode and the Pentagon contract would be yours.
But what if you want to be a lobbyist and you've never played a round of golf, the only season tickets you have are to a children's puppet theater, and your commodes are all American Standard and bolted to your bathroom floor? This was the challenge I faced for my latest, and most public service-oriented, Human Guinea Pig—the column in which I try things readers are curious about but don't want to go to jail for themselves. I would become a Washington lobbyist.
I, of course, was going to lobby for a commendable cause I actually believe in and do it in a totally honest way. (Except for the part where I didn't tell any of the people I was lobbying that I was also performing a journalistic experiment to see if a person with no skyboxes, etc., can even enter a Capitol Hill office, let alone get legislation passed. But I dismissed the moral dilemma presented by this small but necessary deception, because dismissing moral dilemmas made me feel like a real lobbyist.)
I appointed myself president of my newly formed animal-welfare organization, Spay and Neuter Our Pets, or SNOP. SNOP's goal, I determined, was a federal law requiring that all cats and dogs at animal shelters and rescue organizations be spayed or neutered in order to be released for adoption.
Before I began, I decided to talk to some experts. I got a list of the top lobbyists in town and started calling—revealing my true identity—asking if they would give me advice on how to join their profession. It turned out every lobbyist but one didn't want to talk about being a lobbyist. But legendary lobbyist Michael Berman agreed to see me. He is a man who so believes in his First Amendment right to "petition the government for a redress of grievances" that he lectures at a training course for young lobbyists at American University.
First, he told me, the biggest thing I had going for me was that I was someone's constituent. I should start by meeting with the staff of my representative and senators. Try to interest them in my cause and get them to introduce me to people in other offices who might deal directly with any legislation I was proposing. I should create a "leave-behind." This should be a paper outlining my views as succinctly as possible. Also, I should get a coalition together to show I had broad support. "If you're the only one out of 300 million Americans who cares, chances are it shouldn't pass anyway," Berman warned.
I wasn't going to put together a coalition, but I got right to work on my leave-behind. I pasted a heart-tugging photograph of a puppy and kitten clinging to each other on my one-page SNOP brief. In it I explained that current laws were a mishmash of state and local regulations. I gave statistics on the terrible lives that unwanted animals lead. I described how animals left in the wake of Hurricane Katrina—most of them unaltered—are now producing litters of homeless animals. I knocked down the myths of spaying and neutering: "Sterilization makes them better companions. … And no, males don't miss their 'equipment'! "
People on the Hill are antsy now about lobbyists' gifts (members and staffers are not allowed to accept anything worth more than $50), but I wanted to come up with something in addition to my paper that would make them notice SNOP. I bought a dozen small stuffed dogs and put a tag around each neck saying either "I've been spayed" or "I've been neutered." Then I covered their private parts with a Band-Aid.
Next, I researched how best to pitch the members of Congress, all of them Democrats, who represented me in Maryland. I saw that one of my senators, Barbara Mikulski, was the sponsor and the other, Paul Sarbanes, was a co-sponsor of the Uterine Fibroid Research and Education Act. My representative, Chris Van Hollen, was a co-sponsor of the Inflammatory Bowel Disease Research Act. I recognized that neither act was related to animals, but they both dealt with approximately the same anatomical regions as spaying and neutering.
Feeling ready, I set off for Capitol Hill. I had worried that if I called and asked for an appointment for SNOP I'd be snubbed, so I decided to see if I could just drop by and get a meeting. But at almost every office I was greeted by a suspicious receptionist who said the staffers who dealt with my issue were either busy or out to lunch.