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.
I wandered the office buildings discouraged—it's hard out here for a lobbyist—until I ran into a bunch of well-dressed women with overstuffed tote bags. I asked if they were lobbyists and they told me they were from Women of the Storm, a group of Louisiana residents who were lobbying to get every member of Congress to come to the Gulf Coast and see the devastation. They told me they had a series of appointments lined up with senators or their chiefs of staff, and all they'd had to do to get the appointments was call about a week in advance of their arrival.
With this strategic breakthrough, I went home and started calling. Amazingly, I quickly got appointments with staffers for both senators and my representative. My first stop was Sen. Mikulski's office. A young, energetic legislative aide took me to a conference room, and I pulled out my leave-behind and gave her a puppy. When I started on my spiel she intently took notes. Even more amazingly, she told me this sounded like an excellent cause that would be hard to oppose and that Sen. Mikulski, who started as a grassroots lobbyist herself, loves grassroots causes. I was starting to envision the headline "SNOP Sweeps Senate" when she brought me back to reality. She said I needed to go back out and get national animal organizations and shelters to work with me, and then we should start a letter-writing campaign to members of Congress. It might take me two years to build the momentum to get a bill introduced.
She held up the puppy and said that the men who came in to lobby for prostate cancer also bring stuffed puppies because dogs get prostate cancer.
"Dogs wouldn't get it so often if they were neutered," I said, then added, "I bet that would reduce prostate cancer in men, too. But I don't suppose the senator wants to suggest her constituents get neutered."
"No, that's not something the senator is going to pursue," she agreed.
Rushing to my meeting at Sarbanes' office I almost literally ran into Hillary Clinton, walking regally with an aide trailing behind. I was struck that though she was not interacting with anyone, her mouth was stuck in that pursed-lip smile of hers. I realized she must have to paste that on at all times so no one can say, "Hillary Clinton glared at me." For a moment I thought I should pull a puppy out of my bag and hand it to her, explaining what SNOP was. Then I realized the large man with the earpiece who was following behind was her Secret Service agent, who certainly would have wrestled me to the ground.
At Sarbanes' office I spent 40 minutes with a well-turned-out young male staffer. He reeled off a list of senators with an interest in animal issues, advised me that if I expected my bill to go anywhere I was going to need the backing of the Humane Society of the United States, and suggested I should also lobby the House. "Sometimes it's easier on the House side to get something into a bill," he explained. "Sometimes people are looking for an issue to be a leader on—99 percent of House bills don't go anywhere anyway." That was great advice—why not make my goal to inspire one of those useless bills?
Emboldened, I started calling animal-loving members. I quickly got an appointment with a staffer at the office of Sen. John Ensign, a Nevada Republican and the Humane Society's Legislator of the Year. I had discovered that Ensign was the sponsor of a bill to stop the slaughter of horses that were being sent overseas to be sold as fillets. You would think a bill to prevent French people from eating Mr. Ed would have unanimous support, but the legislation was having difficulties—despite having Bo Derek come to town to lobby for it. When I mentioned this to the staffer, he sighed, "No matter what the issue is, there will be people who will be adamantly opposed."
After I gave him his puppy and explained SNOP's goals, he asked a penetrating question: "Could your bill result in the extinction of dogs and cats?" I assured him it wouldn't, but he had brought up a troublesome point. In doing my research for SNOP I had come across some anti-spay and neuter sites. An argument against mandatory spay/neuter laws was that they can drive the small, careful breeder out of business, sending people who don't want to adopt from shelters to unscrupulous puppy mills. And why should every rescued animal be unable to reproduce? Let a wonderful mutt have wonderful puppies now and then!
I left the office a little shaken. What if SNOP was on the wrong track? One of Jack Abramoff's greatest innovations had been to take on clients with opposing interests. He would then construct lobbying campaigns against each of them—in that way convincing clients to pony up more money to fight their powerful opposition. Maybe I should follow Abramoff's example and become the chief lobbyist for STOP SNOP.
Putting my doubts aside, I called the office of one of the biggest dog lovers on Capitol Hill—Sen. Edward Kennedy. I knew Kennedy was a dog lover because he has a children's book coming out about the adventures of his dog, Splash. (Yes, Ted Kennedy has a dog named Splash.) Mentioning that I had a dog cause immediately got me an appointment. The Kennedy staffer was the youngest yet—he looked barely out of college. I gave him a puppy and explained that I was the president of SNOP, at which point he burst out laughing. Then he recovered and gave me the most encouraging advice to date.
He told me I should immediately go to Rep. Tom Lantos' office: "Rep. Lantos is the number-one pet guy in the House." The Lantos people were working on legislation to require that in the event of a forced evacuation like that of Hurricane Katrina, the government must have in place a rescue plan for pets. "Do you have a legislative arm?" at SNOP, he asked me. Now it was my turn to laugh. Even though I didn't, he said I could work with Lantos' people to incorporate my legislation early into his bill. That way it would be very hard to strip out later.
I couldn't wait to finish my last appointment—at Rep. Van Hollen's office—so I could contact the Lantos people and actually get some action on SNOP.
When I made my appointment with Van Hollen's legislative person, though he was impeccably polite, I could tell he thought meeting with SNOP was a waste of time. He came to greet me in the reception area and said we could conduct our meeting right there. Unlike everyone else I met, Van Hollen's guy was not young and sleek and gelled. He looked to be in his late 40s, rumpled and bearded, wearing casual-Friday jeans and sneakers. He had the air of someone who has listened to the ideas of more than his share of constituent nuts.
He mentioned he had a daughter, so I gave him an extra puppy to take home to her. Then I started on my now-polished pitch. I barely got it out when he interrupted to tell me there was a serious problem with my organization's goal: It was unconstitutional.
"I don't think there's a national legislative fix for this," he said. He said laws to spay and neuter animals were a matter for the states. For one thing, I had no enforcement mechanism for states that refused to comply. "A lot of people want the congressman to introduce things," he said. "A lot of [those] things are not federal issues."
OK, so there was a technical glitch about the Constitution. I quickly tried to recover, mentioning the congressman's support for bowel issues and asking if I could get something like that—a bill asking for more funding for spay and neuter research. Or how about a national spay-and-neuter month?
He said groups like such recognition because it helps with advertising and fund raising. But for me to do that, he said, while waving my SNOP leave-behind, "This has to become a viable organization." But why start my own group, he asked—why not just work with one of the existing animal-welfare organizations? Then he stood up and said he had another meeting. Maybe he could see in my eyes that he had just euthanized SNOP and my career as a lobbyist was over. Maybe he didn't want to leave me bereft. He smiled, held up a puppy, and said, "I like the Band-Aid. That's a nice touch."