Lobbyists are often vilified by public officials and reformers alike for what many believe to be their undue influence on the legislative process. On one hand, this criticism is unfounded, since lobbyists are above board influencers who represent everyone from large corporations to consumer advocate groups. In the court of public opinion everyone deserves an advocate, the same way citizens enjoy such rights before a court of law.
On the other hand, it is hard to argue that their influence is large – perhaps even outsized. In 2007, the Center for Public Integrity conducted an extensive study that showed the lobbyist-to-legislator ratios in each state, and the numbers were telling. Almost every state had at least a 1-1 ratio, with the one exception being New Hampshire, where there part-time legislature has over five hundred members. The average was a 5-1 ratio, with New York leading all other states with a staggering 24-1 lobbyist-to-legislator ratio. In Ohio, where I had the privilege to serve in the House for six years, the ratio was 10-1, a number very common amongst larger states.
While this influence is large and rather universal, rarely do those in need of legislative advocacy ask: what happens when lobbyists are not enough? This question is important for two critical reasons. First, state legislators – some of which facing a double-digit lobbyist ratio in their capitols – are inundated with lobbying activity. It will take me quite a long time to forget my first month in office, where, in traditional fashion, I had meetings from early in the morning until late in the afternoon with lobbyists – so many that my staff and I quickly forgot most of them; and I was in the minority party. This experience is common for new legislators, and forces them to value some relationships over others. In sum, the sheer amount of noise means that attempts at cutting through it is often ineffective.
Second, state legislators, unlike their Capitol Hill counterparts, are often understaffed. In Ohio, most offices (including mine) had a single staff member, and some of the most highly staffed only had a few. Because of this reality, staff is often overburdened with lobbyist requests, again enhancing the noise dilemma. This understaffing also meant that many grassroots campaigns – the strategy of bombarding offices with phone calls and letters from grassroots members – were often counterproductive, as they simply annoyed already overworked staff and, sometimes, never even reached the member’s attention.
All of these day-to-day state level realities beg a better solution. Grasstops advocacy is a sustainable strategy for filling that void. By recruiting high-level contacts to make their opinions known to legislators, organizations can cut through the noise and put their message in the hands of people able to speak directly to state legislators due to their local influence. Further, the information gleaned from these discussions (Where does the legislator stand? Why do they feel that way?) can arm your lobbyist with new information, making it far more likely that they can cut through the noise of other political advocates competing for legislative attention. In short, grasstops advocacy can give organizations a critical edge in the echo chamber of state capitols from Augusta to Honolulu.
Will grasstops work for your organization? That question is truly answered on a case-by-case basis. However, nothing bad can come from asking a question that far more organizations should ask: what happens when a lobbyist isn’t enough? Answering this could both save your cause money, and ultimately lead to a far more successful legislative advocacy agenda in the years ahead.
Derrick Seaver is the Director of Field Operations at The Advocacy Group. Previously, he served six years in the Ohio House of Representatives (2001-2006).