When you visit the state house in Concord, you might see some well dressed people wearing bright orange name tags: lobbyists. What do lobbyists do and how does lobbying work? And is their shady reputation really deserved?
(Gen Court Ambi: The House will come to order !)
Jacqui Helbert: When I visit the New Hampshire State House I can immediately tell the difference between legislators and lobbyists. The citizen legislators mostly dress in sensible suits- a few wear practical L.L Bean duck boots.
The lobbyists, on the other hand, dress to impress. Tailored suits, silk ties, and leather dress shoes.
Anna: They are all required to register and then wear these orange names tags in the state house- this very prominent sort of DayGlo orange.
Jackie: It’s either a warning sign or if means like “don’t shoot me” I haven’t been able to figure it out which.
Salutations, and welcome to Civics 101, New Hampshire. Today we’re talking about lobbyists. Some people view them as everything that is wrong with politics.
Jackie: There's definitely this kind of like vision of like the old white guy in an Armani suit with a big check from Philip Morris in his pocket.
While others see them as vital advocates for causes. Jacqui Helbert is going to see if lobbyists are actually lowdown scoundrels slipping cash into the pockets of lawmakers to buy their votes- or if it’s more complicated.
(Philip Morris commercial)
They say they are for the experienced smoker.
I guess I learn fast.
Phillip Morris, we’d be proud to have you try them.
Lobbyists have been lurking the halls under the golden dome for as long as anyone can remember.
Jim: One of the things that lobbyists have to do is live up to their name and that is be hanging out in the lobby in case they need you. So we do walk the halls. We talk to legislators. In a lot of states, legislators have offices that you can go to -
-we can’t squeeze all 424 lawmakers and over 500 registered lobbyists into the NH State House at the same time-
Jim: Here legislators do it from their kitchen table so it's important to be in the statehouse so you can catch legislators and talk to them if you need to. Because you are not going to be able to get office time with them like other states do.
That lobby lurker is-
Jim: I’m Jim Demers and I am a lobbyist here in New Hampshire- have been doing it now for about 25 to 30 years.
Jim is wearing a snazzy pinstripe suit. A magazine cover with his face and the headline “Paid to Persuade” hangs over his desk.
New Hampshire Magazine named him one of the ten most powerful people in the state.
Jim’s love of politics started early- really early.
(Ed Muskie campaign commercial)
Jim: As a little boy I went to my mother one time and said: “I want to work on a presidential campaign.” It was Edmund Muskie’s campaign.
(News: Democratic strategist Jim Demers has been working on presidential campaigns in New Hampshire for decades...)
Jim not only realized that dream but also served three terms in the NH House of Representatives. So he knows how things reallyyy work behind the scenes.
If you don’t know what a lobbyist does, don’t worry-
Jackie: These are folks who their job, their gig, is to advocate for certain points of view on behalf of clients or the people who employ them.
That’s one of our guides to navigating New Hampshire’s pay to play-
Jackie: I’m Jacqueline Benson- I’m the content editor of Citizens Count. We cover New Hampshire candidates elected officials and policy and we do it in a completely nonpartisan way. I am also a writer of saucy historical fiction that likes to bleed into all sorts of different genres like sci-fi and romance.
(PBS: Lobbyists are people who represent special interests- business, labor, the elderly, consumers. They try to convince lawmakers to vote for or against particular bills.)
It can be a lucrative career.
Jim’s firm represents thirty-five clients, and it’s a mixed bag.
You might be asking why is lobbying legal? Isn't it bribing lawmakers?
(1st amendment song)
The first amendment gives “the people” the right to "to petition the government for a redress of grievances." Which gives New Hampshirites (or is it New Hampshroids) the right to advocate the state government.
People can meet with lawmakers. They can testify at hearings. And that same freedom of speech extends to businesses and groups.
Jim: And, you know, part of it is salesmanship that you have to have the interpersonal skills to get before legislators. You've got to be able to explain and sell the position of your client.
Jackie says some lobbyists can be seen as “plucky superheroes”-
Jackie: Plucky superheroes- It really just, I think, depends on do you agree with what this particular lobbyist is trying to sell- or not.
Lobbyists aren’t just hired by corporations. Nonprofits, unions, and advocacy groups hire lobbyists.
Jim: We joke often that a lobbyist is an educator of elected officials. Legislators need to go somewhere to get the information they need because they're going to act on maybe twelve hundred pieces of legislation this year. And it's impossible for everyone to be an expert on every topic. So lobbyists play a very critical role in helping them sort through the information they get.
That’s why he says his personal credibility is the most important part of the job.
Jim: That means that you've got to be honest and upfront. And I've seen lobbyists who have kind of fudged the facts at times and they don't last long in the business. Legislators, they want to know that they're dealing with a square shooter and they can trust you that you're giving them accurate information.
Casey: I think one of the defining characteristics of New Hampshire's legislature is of course that it's a citizen legislature- so there's a lot of familiarity between the elected officials in Concord and the people that they represent. But also the people that they deal with on a day to day basis and that can include lobbyists.
That’s New Hampshire Public Radio reporter Casey McDermott.
(NHPR's Casey McDermott has been reporting on the influence of lobbying money on the race-)
Casey: In doing reporting on lobbying and asking lawmakers about their relationships with those in the lobbying community one of the things that I actually heard a lot was that you know "look these guys are not the Big Bad Wolf. These guys are nice people they're just trying to do a job and I actually count many of them as my friends." That's something that lawmakers told me.
Is it all an old boys network? The same lobbyists rubbing the same shoulders of all the same committee members? I asked if Jim considers a lot of the legislators his friends.
Jim: Well, because I'm not just a lobbyist but I'm active in politics as well...a lot of the people who are legislators are friends of mine. So there is that level of relationship that exists… But I think, you know, just like any business you make professional relationships here- So it's not like, you know, there are 400 people at the statehouse and I spend my birthday party with all 400 of them because they are my best friends.
Casey:You want to have civil relationships between people in a political setting but I think that on the flip side of that it does raise some questions about the level of kind of closeness and, you know, really the kind of barriers or independence between the people who are making policy and the people whose job it is to influence policy.
(House audio: Thank you, Mr. President, the committee on public and municipal affairs to which it was referred Senate bill 398-fn)
Lobbyist don’t just whisper information into the ear of lawmakers. They can also initiate legislation for their client. They do that by convincing a lawmaker to sponsor a bill, rounding up co-sponsors, writing up talking points, testifying- and sometimes they even write the actual bill itself. For lawmakers to copy/paste.
(House: This bill could easily be called New Hampshire's version of the McCain Feingold..)
Good lobbyists don’t take their eye off the bill-
Jim: You have to babysit legislation through the whole process because you never know when all of a sudden the bill could be amended and turned into something that you never expected would happen. So it is a process that requires attention. And it's not over until it's over- until the bill is either defeated or signed into law. Anything can happen in between.
All of that hands-on involvement can make people uncomfortable with their level of influence.
Casey: I mean one of the things about lobbying as a profession is that these are people whose job it is to understand how the government works. They can spend the day, because they're paid to do so, sitting in committee hearings, waiting outside in the hallway to talk to someone, setting up meetings with individual legislators, testifying on bills, you know, doing all of the things that go into influencing policy.
Casey: Whereas the average citizen may have to take time off of work to sit in a hearing, they may have make arrangements to be able to be there and spend the same amount of time getting the same amount of attention from their lawmakers. So, I think there's a sense that maybe sometimes it creates an uneven playing field.
This has given lobbyists an image problem.
Jim: -part of that is earned.
Jim: But it goes back to the days particularly in Washington when the profession wasn't very regulated and you heard horror stories about elected officials going on trips to Bermuda. And, you know, private airplanes taking them places.
Jim: And so if there were, you know, some lobbyist that created problems because they were, you know, excessive in the gifts that they gave out. And some elected officials were excessive in taking some of those gifts.
Jim: You hear less of that today because there are tight ethics laws that have been imposed.
With so much power comes great regulation- well...some regulation.
(PBS: My lobbying bill is in the process of the committee of conference. I just want the lobbyists to register and report so we'll be aware of who they are. It's a pretty important bill we haven't changed it since 1909 except for those orange tags.)
It is a fight to get regulations on lobbyist passed in NH. Most proposals die in the house. The last one successfully passed was ten years ago.
(gen court ambi montage)
Since then every single regulation bill has died in committee.
And there is the matter of the revolving door.
Jim:When I ran in 1986 the outcome for that race didn't quite turn out the way that I had hoped. I knew at that point that I had to do something to put food on the table. Because I couldn't afford to be a candidate every two years and not win.
Remember how Jim was a lawmaker and then became a legislator? That’s a common path for lobbyists and politicians. A lobbyist runs for elected office… a politician becomes a lobbyist at the end of her term.
Unlike other states, New Hampshire doesn’t have a mandatory cooling off period.
Casey: There are no restrictions on legislators entering the private sector. After leaving the government. So that includes, a legislator could walk out of the statehouse and the next term return but actually wearing one of those orange badges as a lobbyist.
The individuals entrusted with regulating industries once worked for those industries or will work for them in the future.
Jim: I don't recall ever a story about a New Hampshire lobbyist or in New Hampshire elected official, you know, being bribed or receiving excessive gifts. We've always had I think a really good system here and a very ethical system.
New Hampshire does have financial reporting requirements-
Jackie:-you've got to report the money that you're bringing in for the services, that you're providing. You've got to provide documentation for the money that goes out. There's separate documentation if that money happens to be going to campaign contributions.
In the Granite State, every lobbyist has to pay fifty dollars annually to register as lobbyists. They also pay fifty dollars for every client they represent. And all the money, in and out, needs to be reported.
Jim: -So it’s every dollar that is paid to the lobbyist is disclosable. And then your operating expenses are also disclosable.
The forms are supposed to be filled out in great detail, itemized. But many New Hampshire lobbyists disregard that rule.
Jim:That is the part that is impossible to break down. If you have 35 clients and you're trying to figure out “how much of my phone bill or my rent so I apportion to a particular client?” It's impossible to do.
Jackie: And then the name badges- got to wear the name badges.
Yes- the tacky orange badges are a special Granite State regulation.….
There’s also caps on gifts elected officials can accept.
Jim: The most you can give as a gift to an elected official is fifty dollars cumulative for a year. So, you know, that pretty much ensures that people aren't playing golf or doing- or going on a trip somewhere. Because 50 dollars kind of holds you down to... maybe you had a lunch meeting or you met for a drink some time- and you had to disclose that, you know, you had a glass of wine. But it’s capped at a pretty low amount.
New Hampshire regulations are vague- full of ambiguities.
Casey: there are some pretty big loopholes or workarounds that exist-New Hampshire actually got I believe a D - on a report card that came out in 2015- from the Center for Public Integrity. And that was looking at all kinds of things including the level of disclosure and the level of rules that exist around lobbying.
Casey: One other thing that I think is important to note is that when you look at New Hampshire relative to other states there are a lot of things that other states do that New Hampshire doesn't do here. Some states, just ban contributions between lobbyists and lawmakers. In some other states, lobbyists can only contribute to candidates that are their elected officials. -so for example only if they live in the district where that lawmaker is a representative.
Anna: You don't necessarily have to find sneaky ways to give candidates money. You can just donate to their election campaign.
Ahhhh! There it is. The BIG loophole.
Casey: While New Hampshire does have rules around gifts that lobbyists can give to lawmakers, and the monetary amount that applies to that -$50- No similar limit exists when it comes to campaign finance donations. So what you see is a lot of lobbyists who will give well in excess of 50 dollars to a legislator toward his or her re-election campaign.
In New Hampshire lobbyists can, and do, bankroll campaigns.
Anna: I think that the tricky thing here is candidates whether if they're getting these donations they argue-they vehemently argue- that it does not influence their vote.
That's pay to play guide Ann Brown, director of research and analysis for Citizens Count.
Jim: There is not an expectation here that you have to make contributions in order to have access. So the sort of, as they call it, pay for play is really almost unheard of in New Hampshire. People don't expect that that's part of the game here. Thank goodness.
Casey: It’s really like kind of ingrained in the political culture here, to have fundraising receptions that are heavily attended by lobbyists. It’sr really not uncommon for senators to host re-election campaigns even starting as early as a month into the session raising, money for their next re-election.
New Hampshire doesn’t rely on its legislative ethics committee to investigate conflicts of interest. It relies on citizens to audit their lawmaker's finances through the financial disclosure forms.
Casey:- whether they did in fact report all of the fees that they earned. Or did in fact report all of the kind of money that they were supposed to in an appropriate fashion.
Casey: The posture of the state historically has been "look, we will make these available online. We will make these available if an individual citizen wants to come into our office that the secretary of state's office and dig through the files or look through the actual paperwork."
New Hampshire received an F grade for Public Access to information. Ranked 49th in the nation.
Casey: It's frankly kind of complicated for someone to find the forms on the website. They're kind of scattered throughout all kinds of disparate pages-
It’s hard to know for sure how much money is going in and how much influence that does or doesn’t buy. Casey spoke with a senator whose late wife was a prominent lobbyist at the State House-
Casey: -according to him even she had a hard time winning over his votes. That kind of notion that lawmakers are completely independent they can't be swayed by lobbyists was indicative in many of the conversations that I had with lawmakers, from both parties.
That senator got about 80 percent of his campaign money from lobbyists.
Anna: So you know-you can look at them "OK they took some donations from lobbyists or these particular business interests that they're also going to be considering legislation." You can read into that, you know. But the legislators are going to say, you know, "this is a matter of free speech. If these people support my campaign then they're going to help me get elected and then that doesn't necessarily influence how I'm going to vote."
Jackie: It can be like a chicken and egg thing like" I'm getting the money because I already support what this lobbyist happens to be advocating for." I mean who’s to say?
I’m not to say. But I do know that if I walk into the state house today I will see people wearing fancy suits and orange name badges.
(Audio of court closing)