Lobbyists learn how to make sausage
March 20, 1986
Lobbyists are more than a specialized trade in the state capital, they constitute a fourth branch of government. I touched on the role played by advocates of organized interests in a 1997 piece for Illinois Issues magazine, in which I argued that interest groups—ad hoc and extra-constitutional as they might be—have made themselves essential to Illinois politics and government. This piece focuses instead on the process by which bills become laws, and the role in it played by lobbyists.
I should have done more reporting over the years on the processes of government, I guess. Someone should have. James Nowlan has written perceptively of the process from an academic viewpoint, but more on-the-scene reporting of how a bill gets passed—combat reporting if you will—would make the public record livelier as well as fuller.
Springfield is famous for two things. One is Lincoln, a dead politician who is buried in Oak Ridge Cemetery. The other is the General Assembly, where it may be said that many live politicians are buried.
Like most people who grew up in Springfield, I learned early in life to regard General Assembly sessions the way one regards a noisy party in a neighbor's apartment: The affair is too obnoxious to ignore, but beyond that it is really none of your business. The legislature thus remained as mysterious a place to the average Springfieldian as an art gallery. I have always found it all the more interesting, then, to talk to journalists, lawmakers, lobbyists, and assorted other special pleaders who take part in its secret rites.
Like Nancy Bothne. Bothne recently left Springfield after four years spent lobbying for the Illinois chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. Before she left, we talked a bit about those four years. Like most lobbyists, she never achieved as much as she had hoped to achieve when she began, and ended up achieving more than she later came to think was possible. Considering that arguing the case for civil liberties to the members of the General Assembly is a little like trying to sell condoms at a monastery, one would expect her to be soured on what is enshrined in statehouse argot as The Process. And she was, sort of. "Like anybody who deals with the General Assembly," she said, "I found dealing with the day-to-day politics frustrating." In spite of that, and in spite of the fact that the ACLU's record (at least as measured by the false coin of bills passed) was mixed ("we lost more than we won"), she was surprisingly approving. "It amazes me that this process works, but it does," Bothne said. "I don't know how or why, but it does."
There is a thick slice of Springfield society that regards civil libertarians as a little addlepated anyway, and who might thus dismiss Bothne's judgment. But I've heard that opinion again and again. Sid Marder, environmental consultant to the Illinois State Chamber of Commerce, recently described The Process this way: "It's a goofy system, but it works." The cynical will reply that it does work—for people like the Chamber of Commerce. But one hears the same verdict from people who, because they advocate causes which offend conventional wisdom by their intelligence or their controversy, have little to show for their months in Springfield except a bad stomach and a condition recognized by local chiropractors as Amtrak spine.
Often this endorsement is expressed in tones of amazement. Many cause lobbyists are ill paid, and thus are often young and inexperienced when they first pull off the interstate toward the capitol. They are offended at the casual corruption, the ignorance, the tyranny exercised by constituents over craven lawmakers, what Bothne described as the "nit-picky" objections which can scuttle a good bill. Some, disenchanted, leave; some stay, and grow bitter.
Others arrive with expectations which are less flattering, if just as naive. They walk in expecting to see members chewing the upholstery, or to catch them in flagrante delicto in the hearing rooms with a delegation of bankers or a Brownie troop on a day-trip to the statehouse. Indeed, they see them compromised often enough. The fact that they do not seem compromised all the time, however, comes as a shock. Even intermittent integrity must be respected in an environment like the General Assembly session, which makes a bordello look like a hallelujah hall.
The General Assembly, in other words, is a marvelous place to get a political education. Statesmen act like rogues, and buffoons brilliantly (if momentarily and by accident) rise to the rank of statesman. The miracle my lobbyist friends report to me is not that intelligence prevails—in a democracy that would be too much to hope for—but that it survives at all.
Interestingly, the complaint is seldom made that the General Assembly is a political body. It is supposed to be. There is much complaint that the politics is so often of such a low order. But politics, conventionally understood, is more important to The Process as a concept than a fact. The real factors in deciding a bill's fate are more antic, subtle, and complex. Today's headlines, yesterday's lunch, a poorly phrased memo, a hurriedly whispered message that is misunderstood, the way a lawmaker's mother used to make him lick his plate before he could go out to play—such are the stuff laws are made of. (The sausage factory remains the universal metaphor for The Process because it is accurate and not just venerable.)
The actual merits of one's bill do matter, often more than the public and rookie lobbyists believe possible. The problem is that the merits are not all that matter. Bothne recalls the advice of a veteran legislative hand, who explained that if you win, it's going to be because your opponents screwed up; what you do doesn't make much difference.
This is a hard lesson to learn. Jeff Todd lobbies for the Illinois Public Health Association, one of several groups which worked last year to pass a "community right-to-know" bill requiring businesses to make a full reporting of potential toxic hazards. The bill passed in the House only to fail in the Senate by four votes. "We came so close," Todd says. "We didn't lose on the basis of the bill but on the basis of politics." The fact is—and Todd acknowledges it—that good bills seldom pass on their merits either.
The General Assembly thus is a perfect forum for moral as well as political education. In few other places is it as obvious how much good work in the world gets done for bad reasons, and vice versa. Consider the privacy issue. There is hardly a legislator who will not explain his support for strictures against electronic surveillance as evidence of advanced thinking. Bothne noted in contradiction that the General Assembly is usually unsympathetic to privacy protections. Why then the exception for electronic surveillance? Because that's how many lawmakers (or their mob buddies) have been nailed for kickbacks and other payoff scams. "Politicians understand that they are vulnerable to these things," Bothne explained. If Illinois has greater privacy protections built into its constitution than are present in the U.S. Constitution, she hints, it's because Illinois politicians have more they want to keep private.
There are institutional egos at work at the statehouse as well as human ones. Legislative self-absorption often renders the people who work there ridiculous as well as dangerous to the rest of us. That insularity is fabled. Springfield has tens of hundreds of lobbyists, consultants, journalists, and bureaucrats who've lived here for years and never met a Springfieldian not similarly occupied. (When we met, Bothne said that I was the first Springfieldian she'd met who wasn't an old lady. I was flattered.)
It is hard to see how The Process could work any other way. "The General Assembly tries to do too much," Bothne said. "Legislation is not the only cure for what's wrong with the world."
She adds that this sense of mission, the sense that the world outside hinges on the results of the work one does in Springfield, "allows people to come up with the energy it takes to work with the General Assembly." The energy thus required is enormous. Reporters forty years ago complained about eighteen-hour days at the end of each session. But sessions then were held only every other year, and the bills to be dealt with numbered in the hundreds, not thousands. Worse still, the issues thus debated were seldom as complex as those today.
In the closing weeks of a major session people have been known to live on nothing but coffee and outrage. People get crazy. Livers have been ruined; so have marriages. Rational people get less so; fighting the good fight is never easy, but is seldom harder than at one in the morning after a twenty-hour day. It is easy to persuade oneself that any fight you are making is good, if only to justify the expense of fighting it; the result is that the impulse to compromise hardens just when it needs to be most flexible.
A sensible person would never endure a session. Even a dedicated one would balk at more than two or three. Yet sensible people do endure them year after year. Why? For one thing, because working at the statehouse in the midst of a session is cheap thrills. Money, power, adrenaline, ambition all collide under the promiscuous eye of the TV camera. No one who hasn't been through it can quite appreciate the buzz it provides, and no one who been through it has forgets. Kevin Greene, lobbyist for the Illinois Environmental Council, is one of those statehouse rookies who got a high from breathing that heady air; he found that adjusting to the more measured pace of his other life as a research associate for the Chicago-based Citizens for a Better Environment took several weeks. Greene is not alone in describing that adjustment as if it were a withdrawal from a drug.
I will leave the last word to Bothne. Her organization, she admitted, will take credit it can for passing this bill or defeating that one. Every organization with business in Springfield does it, and for the same reason: It makes it look good with the members. That credit-taking—along with the omissions of the press—is one of the reasons people outside the statehouse retain such a simple view of The Process. "No one person or organization," Bothne concluded, laughing, "can take credit for any action of the General Assembly." ●