In fact, it’s not so much the culture you learn when you study lobbying as the nuts and bolts of the process and its various components, something its supporters call “applied politics,” compared with traditional political science, which is far more theoretical. “Let’s be candid,” says James Thurber, a political scientist who runs American’s lobby program. “It’s an area that pure academics look down on.” This semester, for example, George Washington’s 36 credit hour, two-year degree program in “political management” includes courses on fundraising, international lobbying, communications strategy and principled political leadership.
A few miles away, American’s Public Affairs and Advocacy Institute — it used to be called the “Lobbying Institute” until it was changed by a university dean who didn’t like the connotation, says Thurber — offers a full-time, two-week workshop whose speakers include some 30 lobbyists who talk about strategies and tactics used to influence public policy.
“One misconception about lobbying is that it’s simply hiring somebody who goes into Congress and talks to people to influence legislation. That’s a very narrow view,” says Thurber, adding that “what we think lobbying is, and what we teach, is that it’s important to develop a clear strategy.” These include everything from TV and print ads, social media, using survey research to evaluate how effective your lobbying campaign is to the public, developing grass roots and grass tops, coalition building, and knowing the law.”
Yet there is widespread agreement that perhaps the only sine qua non to becoming a successful lobbyist is a prior job on the Hill. “It’s not just understanding the mechanics,” says House, “it’s having a feel for how Congress operates and the mood of Congress, and the only way to get that is to have been part of the process.”
There is a type of personality common among the best lobbyists, “a certain indefinable quality that makes certain people appealing,” says one top Senate aide who has been lobbied hundreds of times over the course of a two-decade career. Burdett Loomis, one of a handful of university professors who actually study lobbying, puts it this way: “I do think you can teach a lot of this stuff,” he said from his office in the political science department of the University of Kansas, “but obviously you can’t give someone a personality transplant.”
For Thomas Susman, who runs the American Bar Association’s government affairs office and has been a lobbyist for 30 years, “lobbying is salesmanship on a very personal level.” Susman spent his college years selling everything from newspaper subscriptions to Christmas gifts to air conditioning filters door to door, an experience he considers crucial to his career. “You’d knock on a door and there’d be an old drunk with a gun, a latchkey kid high on dope, a woman in a negligee whose husband’s been gone for two years — and you have to sell to all of them.” It’s the ability, says American League of Lobbyists president Howard Marlowe, “to deal with 535 different personalities, and there’s nothing standard about that.”
Hobson says he sometimes wonders if that particular quality so important to a successful lobbyist — the ability to make a real and personal connection with a member or staff — is lost on a generation of students more comfortable and more used to communicating in short, impersonal digital bursts. “Technology has eroded the communications process,” he complains. “Lobbying is about building relationships and face-to-face contact, and you don’t get that in an e-mail.”