Misconceptions About Lobbying Representatives and Agencies

Never overestimate the knowledge, intelligence, or courage of elected representatives.

Tip O’neill spent 50 years as an elected representative, his last ten years as Speaker of the House of Representatives. He was a lifetime student of the political process and wrote a slim volume All Politics is Local and Other Rules of the Game, in which he summarized what he had learned in a lifetime of doing politics.1

Anyone who intends to lobby a politician must read this book as it describes what motivates politicians, how they think, and why they do what they do. In a brief five-paragraph chapter, “How to Lobby Your Congressman Effectively,” he makes only one point: when people lobbied him, he often had no idea what they were talking about. That was the single most frustrating thing about his experience as a politician. O’Neill said congressmen must deal with perhaps 50,000 bills in each session and there is no way they can possibly know what a constituent is talking about when they refer to HR 5304 or House Resolution 543, etc. Thus, when you set up an appointment with an elected official, you must tell him in advance what you wish to speak about by bill number and, more importantly, by content. Then he will have had a chance to become familiar with your issue by the time you arrive. O’Neill said that constituents erroneously think that because a particular bill means everything to them, the congressman will know what they are talking about. But usually they don’t, because they can’t.2

We should prepare thoroughly for our lobbying campaign and implement it as best we can and then hope for the best. But what happens if your representative, despite your lobbying efforts, votes against you? When a really good politician does a bad thing, there are four things activists should do:

Ask them to explain exactly why they did it.

Tell them you are very disappointed.

Ask them not to do it again.

Forget it.

Believe it or not, highly paid lobbyists usually skip the first three. They know they have access, so they don’t have to sweat individual votes. With continuing access year in and year out, they know they will prevail in the long run. Therefore, they cut their elected allies an amazing amount of slack and never go public on them.

Most elected officials are good people who sincerely try to reflect their constituents’ wishes as they understand them. Ultimately elected representatives must represent, reflect, and express their constituents’ views or they will not survive.

If you are embroiled in a campaign, it means your elected official is not yet convinced of the validity of your views. If they were, you would not need your campaign in the first place. Politicians usually represent the wishes of their campaign contributors, but it is NOT because they are being forced, paid or bribed to vote one way or another. It’s because they are exposed more often and more forcefully to the views of developers, lobbyists, and business interests than to yours. Effective lobbying is a process of changing a representative’s mind by exposing him or her to your views and providing arguments to counter the lobbying of the other side. Seldom can anyone on either side of an issue dictate the way a representative will vote. In fact, it is generally highly improper and usually unproductive to demand an elected representative vote a certain way.

The problem with American money politics is that a few people get most of the face time and thus have more opportunities to persuade officials that doing the right thing and doing the developer’s thing are one and the same. But if a politician intends to run again, when faced with a clear choice between the will of the voters and the will of his contributors, voters will win because voters always trump money. A good way for you to get face time is in the public meetings that politicians often hold. Attend those meetings and give your representative copies of your briefing materials. Have local people continuously raise your issue at all meetings of elected officials.

Until you know for sure, don’t assume that, just because a local elected official is an anti-environmentalist, they won’t help you. Ask them for help anyway. In one case I was helping a local group stop a federal timber sale that involved some endangered bats. The local congressman was well-known for his virulent pro-timber, anti-forest protection views and the group insisted that talking to him about the sale was pointless. So, I approached the congressman’s staff person for natural resources in Washington, D.C. Amazingly the staff person had done work on that particular species of bat in graduate school and was very concerned about them. So, he was more than happy to help us stop that sale, which he did with a single phone call.

When a developer wants to rezone a piece of property to build more houses on it, elected representatives will be sympathetic, but not because moneyed interests have made payoffs. Instead it will be because imaginative and attractive arguments have been made by those with face-to-face access. It is not money per se that we struggle against, it is the access that money buys.

Never say anything to a politician that will cause an irreparable breach no matter what they do to you. Because the day will certainly come when you will need to deal with them again. If you have lied to them, betrayed a confidence, or said something unforgivable, it will be impossible to do so. Always remember that when a politician double-crosses you, it is nothing personal.

Most attempts at lobbying by environmental organizations are very inefficient and produce very little bang for the buck. They are mostly confined to high-profile campaigns like Arctic drilling, global warming, roadless areas or issues involving charismatic endangered animals.

People usually overestimate their elected representative’s grasp of their issues. Often legislators cast votes on issues with no prior knowledge that the environmental community has any concerns about them. In fact, many pro-environmental votes are based strictly on a legislator’s personal concerns or personal experiences.

Elected representatives who support bad environmental activities often do so because they have been persuaded that the proposed destructive action is the best way to protect the environment or the action is the lesser of several evils. Many “wise-use” elected representatives sincerely believe they are pursuing policies good for the environment and that environmentalists’ concerns are misguided, naïve efforts that may actually harm the environment. Often, they think grassroots activists are agents of urban interests who want to destroy the rural way of life and drive out the local folks to lock up public land as recreation areas for urban yuppies. Agency staff may feel that way, too.

But agency staff do not, cannot, and will not pursue any particular political or environmental agenda that will upset the elected officials who control their budget and staff. Agencies are virtually value free and are delighted to do whatever their political overseers want them to do. That can be to cut trees or protect trees. Line managers have little or no ability to actually stand up against higher authorities. Picketing an agency that won’t do what you want them to, is like picketing a theater ticket taker who won’t let you in because you can’t pay the price of admission.

Stalin once said that he never negotiated with puppets, only the people who pull their strings. For grassroots activists, agency staff are merely puppets. Elected representatives control the strings.


1. O’Neill, Tip, and Gary Hymel. All Politics Is Local and Other Rules of the Game. New York, NY: Times Books, 1994.

2. Ibid.

This essay is adapted from “Organize to Win” Vol 1 chapter 7 which can be downloaded at britell.com Subscribe to my blog here.


Jim Britell is a native of Utica, New York and a retired federal manager who served as a long range planner, Management analyst, Chief of Management Information Systems and Chief of Systems Operations. He was a leader in the West Coast ancient forest campaign, has organized on behalf of wilderness in 30 states, and is author of the handbook on grassroots organizing, Organize to Win. He was formerly President of the Malone Public Library and board member of the NYS Library Trustees Association. He maintains a web site for grassroots organizers at Britell.com.