Working the levers of power
By Steven Martinovich
Virtually every American – at least the legal ones – has taken a civics class and should understand at a minimum of a basic level how their federal government works. There is, of course, a difference between understanding and understanding – the later connoting knowing how things work in actual practice. And so it is with affecting change: We'd like to think it's a lot like Norman Rockwell's famous painting Free Speech but in reality it entails a lot of time, effort and money.
With that enters Capitol Hill veteran Joseph Gibson's Persuading Congress: A Practical Guide to Parlaying an Understanding of Congressional Folkways and Dynamics into Successful Advocacy on Capitol Hill, a guide for executives how best to turn the neat trick of turning their point of view into political reality. Gibson's effort is how we'd wish legislation passed by Congress would be: To the point and trimmed of even an atom's weight of fat. That fact is both its blessing and curse.
Persuading Congress is divided into nine broad sections that are further divided into five or so 1-3 page chapters which cover everything from how Congress works, timing your legislative push, the role of money, meeting with your representative or senator, and handling crisis. Given the increasing intervention by the federal government in the American economy – its most egregious recent example coming with the bailouts and subsequent de facto takeover of banks and automakers – knowing the ins and outs of how Congress works is an obvious necessity for corporate executives. That doesn't just apply to the Fortune 500, but also smaller regional concerns which have aspirations or are facing industry-wide regulation.
Gibson repeatedly cautions the reader to temper their expectations. Congress is an enormous ship that takes a long time to make a turn – partly because the Founding Fathers designed her that way, partly because inaction is typically safer than action. Legislation that gets passed quickly, such as the USA PATRIOT Act of 2001 or the Emergency Economic Stabilization Act of 2008 is usually the result of a crisis that prompts Congress to act in the face of public pressure – whether real or imagined. For the most part, counsels Gibson, lobbying efforts may take years to bear fruits.
Although Gibson can be thanked for avoiding the spider web of complexity that the congressional process can be, Persuading Congress may actually be too concise. As an example, Gibson repeatedly advocates hiring a quality lobbyist to help guide legislative efforts to desired outcomes but the reader never really understands what exactly a quality lobbyist is. Even Gibson admits that it's hard for a lobbyist to quantify their worth in actual dollars. If a veteran of Capitol Hill finds it difficult to do so, one can only imagine a poor corporate executive confronted with the galaxy of choice that's available on K Street – particularly if they come with similar credentials.
As an introduction to the topic, Persuading Congress works well enough. For those not politically involved or decades removed from civics class, Gibson's effort is a fine primer for those confronted by the sudden need to interact with Congress, or worried that may soon come to pass. And although it might have been better served with more specifics – which Gibson's experience on the Hill would have easily provided – Persuading Congress is a worthwhile addition to any uninformed corporate executive's library.
Steven Martinovich is the editor in chief of Enter Stage Right.
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