Lobbyists get a bad rap. They are often portrayed as the people who win self-serving legislation through trickery, campaign contributions and maybe even an off-the-books bribe. But most lobbying is simply engagement with lawmakers about policy concerns. I spoke with Alexa Kramer for the Overton Window podcast about how member-directed lobbying works.
The Grand Rapids Chamber of Commerce is a collection of dues-paying West Michigan businesses that have come together to advance their interests, including in the state Capitol. There is a process that they go through to determine what those interests are, and Kramer gets to figure out how to advance those priorities once they are set.
The chamber uses three committees to determine these priorities. Members can choose to participate in the process and sit on committees, which are based on policy areas. Policy committees review their prior positions and discuss altering them for the next session. “This discussion goes on for many a month,” Kramer says.
For each committee, she listens and works to edit its plan and then present it again to the committee. There’s more discussion and, if members are satisfied, they approve the plan. It goes to another committee, the chamber’s policy council — a smaller group comprised of the chairs of other committees and other members who have policy experience. Finally, it needs to be approved by the chamber’s board of directors.
There will be conflicts along the way, and one of Kramer’s jobs is to respectfully work to address them. So after the meetings, she talks to members about their concerns. “I do a lot of follow up and one-on-one conversations,” she says.
When those priorities are set, it is then her job to get lawmakers to agree.
She talks about the chamber’s work on child care as an example. “We put together a statewide coalition on child care in the summer of 2019, pre-pandemic, which seems forever ago,” she says. Chamber staff and members got key state leaders, legislators who cared about the issue, business groups, childhood advocates and research groups to come together to endorse some preferred policies. They were successful in getting bipartisan support, and lawmakers created a new “Tri-share pilot program,” a state-managed program where taxpayers, employers and employees split the costs for an employee’s child care expenses.
Chamber representatives also comment on issues as they go through the legislative committees, show up in press conferences when their legislation advances, work with others when needed, and meet with legislators to talk about their priorities. Standard lobbying tactics.
Legislators lobby them as well. “I’ll get tapped by a legislator saying, ‘Hey, this is an idea I have, this is potentially what I’m thinking of, and this is some draft legislation: What are you thinking? What are your thoughts and what are your members thinking?”
One thing chamber members can add to the legislative debate is their expertise. They have experience with policy and knowledge about how it affects them, so Kramer can use them to tell their stories and provide their expert opinions to legislators in committee hearings and in direct meetings with lawmakers. “They hear from me a lot. If I am able to bring a member, they [the legislators on committee] will usually listen to them a little bit more.” She also helps members prepare to present and to note that they’ll be representing their fellow member interests when they do. “We ask them to put on their ‘Chamber Hat’ on. So you think of what is good for the entire business community, not necessarily just your business,” she says.
Having priorities written down allows her members to know how to react to bills that get submitted. If legislators introduce bills that affect their areas, they’ll know where to stand, and also which bills they can ignore if they’re not affected by them.
Being a member-directed organization, though, also means that the chamber can change its priorities. “Legislators are usually very receptive to understand that there is a process, and we’re really proud of that process. So if we change our mind on something, it’s been rigorously looked at.” It’s gone through three committees, after all.
All in all, lobbying is a lot of conversations with legislators. And legislators know what to expect from them: to reiterate the debate that is going on and state their stance. “Something that our team does at the Grand Rapids Chamber — I’m very proud of our team — is that we always give the full picture. I’m going to tell you why you should support it. But I am also going to tell you the reasons that folks don’t support it.”
Kramer points out that a lobbyist needs to be honest to be effective. “My boss, Andy Johnston, has always coined the phrase, ‘Lansing is like high school.’ It does come down to your word. If you lie to a legislator once, they’re going to remember that,” she says. “Your word is the most important way to be an effective lobbyist, and you have to say what you mean and mean what you say.”
Beyond meeting with legislators, members of the chamber also engage in politics with their political action committee, Friends of West Michigan Business. Kramer notes that membership dues are not used for this purpose — members have to contribute to the PAC separately if they want to support their efforts. Providing campaign contributions and endorsing candidates that are aligned with their interests ensures that they’ll be respected by candidates when they get elected. “We are able to put our money where our mouth is. Getting into the politics when you’re focusing on policy is a way to be effective,” she says. “The best way to get good policy accomplished is making sure that there are folks who agree with you sitting in those seats.”
Kramer notes that making endorsements is probably the most controversial thing that her organization does.
The fact that there are so many lobbyists working to meet with lawmakers shows that it’s been an established way to change policy. And lobbying is a tactic that can help determine the bounds of the Overton Window.
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