It’s been almost 30 years since Steve Billet, at the time a newly minted lobbyist for AT&T, pulled up behind a car at a red light in Washington and noticed the bumper sticker: “Don’t tell my mother I’m a lobbyist. She thinks I play piano in a whorehouse.”
Since then, things have only gotten worse, at least reputationally, for what may be the most remunerative of the world’s more beleaguered professions (and yes, it is considered a profession by many). Billet, in fact, no longer lobbies; he runs a graduate program at George Washington University that teaches people how to lobby. It’s a tall order, and not just because the whole concept has many on K Street rolling their eyes.
“Parents don’t raise their kids to be lobbyists,” says Billet, with some understatement. “It’s an extra challenge from a marketing perspective. We have to actively promote our program.”
Indeed, many K Streeters simply believe the craft (and yes, it is considered a craft by many as well) is something you can’t learn by reading a book. “It’s all about good instincts,” says Mike House, who directs the lobbying team at Hogan Lovells, the behemoth law firm whose revenue reached $1.67 billion last year. “And instincts,” adds House, a lobbyist since he left the Hill as chief of staff to Howell Heflin, the late Democratic senator from Alabama, more than 20 years ago, “can never be taught.”
Now that the presidential and congressional elections are over, Washington’s quadrennial personnel shift begins, with hundreds of Hill staffers and political appointees from dozens of federal agencies preparing to descend on K Street, trying to convince prospective employers that they can either advance their agenda or stymie those of their opponents. For many, signing up for American University’s two-week series of lectures and seminars, enrolling in the master’s degree program at George Washington’s Graduate School of Political Management or taking the American League of Lobbyists’ Lobbying Certificate Program by attending 11 of 14 different monthly lectures — to name some of the most popular programs around town — might provide that competitive edge. Then again, it might get you no more than a very expensive piece of paper, one that costs $1,500 for a certificate of completion for American’s course and as much as $47,160 for the 36 credit-hours it takes to earn a full-blown master’s of political management at George Washington. It certainly won’t let you waltz into one of the city’s thousands of lobby shops with a guaranteed position — particularly not in today’s tight job market.
In short, you can go to school to learn about lobbying, but you don’t become a lobbyist by going to school. “I always start off the first night by saying, ‘If you thought when you finished this course you could be a lobbyist, you’re wrong,’ ” explains Julius W. Hobson Jr., a senior adviser at Polsinelli Shughart and former top lobbyist at the American Medical Association who graduated from the George Washington program in 1980 and has been teaching a course there twice a year ever since 1994. “Not everybody has the instincts to be a good lobbyist.”