It's Never Too Late to Lobby, Says DC Insider Alex Vogel

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Even small- and medium-sized businesses can have a big impact on how members of Congress vote, says the former chief counsel to the Senate Majority Leader, but first you've got to knock on their doors.

Alex Vogel
Alex Vogel

URBANSKI: Hello, everyone, and welcome to DC Direct, where we talk to movers and shakers in Washington about issues affecting direct marketers. I'm Al Urbanski, senior editor of Direct Marketing News. Today we are pleased to have with us a longtime inhabitant of the halls of power in DC. Alex Vogel has been recognized by both the National Journal and The Hill as one of the leading lobbyists in Washington. He served as Chief Counsel to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist in the early 2000s and was General Counsel of the National Republican Senatorial Committee. He now heads VogelHood Research, a firm dedicated to creating data-driven models to help stakeholders predict decisions made by Washington policymakers. An advisor to the American Catalogue Mailers Association, Alex has a firm grasp on governmental issues facing direct marketers today. Alex, welcome. A pleasure to have you with us today.

VOGEL: Good morning. Thanks for having me.

URBANSKI: So Alex, you've spent most of your professional life behind the scenes on the Hill. Tell us, what are some of the things industries with effective lobbying efforts do right and what are some of the things that poor lobbyists do wrong?

VOGEL: The most important thing that successful people do is they have visibility and they engage directly on as many different fronts as possible. So what does that mean? That means regardless of industry, that I frequently take every opportunity I have to tell my story and that of the issues that are important to my industry to the policymakers and their staffs. And I would also say not just in Washington. Too many people fall into a trap of, “Well, I went to my trade association meeting once and I've met my Congressman and therefore I'm done.” The reality is there are many touchpoints people can use. Some of the most effective happen to be the easiest, meaning go see them where you live. If this policymaker represents your facility, invite him to the facility. Engagement on multiple levels is the most important thing you can do.

URBANSKI: So that's a long-term strategy, right? That's something that should be ongoing and obviously relationships are relationships. The longer you have them, the deeper the roots lie and the more influence you have. But say I'm an owner of a catalog operation and I haven't been involved. And now I have some issues facing me, like the remote sales tax issue, like postal reform. And I do want to go to Washington and get involved there or I need to get involved quickly. What do I do now? Do I call my trade association, get involved with efforts they have going on; or do I do something on my own?

VOGEL: So, two things. One, I think the answer is all of the above. You definitely should engage with your trade association, in this case the Catalog Mailers [Association], because they are up there every day. That is, all they are doing is advocating on your behalf to regulators and policymakers. So, if you reach out to them, not only does it add your voice to a long list of people who are helping to engage in those conversations, but importantly, it allows you to stay fully abreast of those issues so that you know which parts matter to you. I can't tell you how many times smaller members of trade associations have realized through that engagement, "I had no idea this piece of it even affected me. Now I really care. Before, I only cared in the macro sense. Now these guys were able to educate me and help plug me into an existing advocacy structure to make my impact that much greater.”

URBANSKI: The bottom line is it's just like anything, the more intelligence you have on a situation the better it is. And when it's your business that's at stake, you really need to go out and get as much intelligence as you can as the head of the business, correct?

VOGEL: Absolutely. And I think too many people make the mistake of thinking somehow that Washington is about politics and business is about business. These are issues that affect companies' bottom lines and the way in which they're able to effectively reach consumers and markets. So it really does matter.

URBANSKI: So our representatives in Washington take a lot of flak, but how involved would they be with the views of one business owner? It might be a big catalog operation but—in the scope of American business—perhaps it's not. It's considered a small- or medium-sized business. If I go to Washington, whom should I see? Will my Senator see me? Will my Congressional rep see me? Or should I just stay at the state level and work there? Does it pay to go to Washington?

VOGEL: I am a strong believer in engagement at the Washington level. I think too often people assume that, you know, the Walmarts of the world can get the meeting with their Congressman, [but] they really can't be heard. Number one, small- and mid-sized companies can have greatly oversized impact with their senators and representatives. They do care. You have voters and jobs in their states and districts and they do want to hear from you.

Now, what form that takes? If you come to Washington, it might very well be, regardless of how big your enterprise is, that your senator or your congressman personally are not able to meet with you. I encourage people to not let that bother them. The reality is most of the time, regardless of your size, you are going to meet with a staffer for that member of Congress. And the reality of it is those people—many of them very young—they are the ones helping to drive and shape these policies for the members. So it is just as important and as valuable to talk to a chief of staff or a legislative director as it is to talk to the member directly.

URBANSKI: It's that young person sitting behind the chairman of the committee, right, that leans over and whispers into his or her ear during sessions?

VOGEL: That's right. And you know, people should understand, these members, notwithstanding the fact that they're much maligned and are presumed not to work very hard, are actually working incredibly hard. And remember, they are having to manage literally hundreds of different policy issues. So for the vast majority of those issues, their opinions, the information flowed to them, and the analysis about those issues is both through and done by a staffer who, at the last minute, will lean forward and say, "Hey by the way, boss, we've looked at this and we've met with these people and here's where I think you should be."

Now, of course at the end of the day it is the member's final call to say, "Here's how I'm going to vote on this issue." But in the vast majority of issues, that is shaped largely by the staff.

URBANSKI: Yes, I could back that up as a reporter in Washington in that, you know, when I want to find out about a certain issue like postal reform or remote sales tax, the best person for me to talk to is that staffer that's dedicated to that issue. Frankly, it's harder for me to get to talk to that staffer—and it's totally all on background and off the record—than it is to speak with the Senator or Representative.

VOGEL: Exactly.

URBANSKI: So how much time and attention and money do I have to devote to getting involved in these issues in the manner that I should? Do I need to hire a government affairs person for my own company? Should I go it on my own and do it that way and get my name known in Washington? What's the best way to go about it?

VOGEL: So to some degree it depends at the end of the day on how many of these issues affect you. For most companies, the reality is they have the internal resources between their own personnel and their trade associations to effectively manage the suite of issues. For some, those issues become consuming enough that it actually makes sense to either outsource that to someone who is on the ground in Washington, a contract lobbyist, or to someone individually within the company. I would say, though, the reality is the barrier to success is not money. The barrier to success is engagement. A little story here.

The most effective advocacy effort and group of companies I have ever seen in Washington, regardless of size, is the beer wholesalers. The beer wholesalers are a dominant presence in Washington. Now why is that? Are they the largest business in America? No. Many of them are relatively small local businesses. But they are engaged 100%. And by that I mean every single member of Congress knows their local beer distributor. It's not just because they all like beer—many of them probably do—but it's because those businesses have taken the time individually to go in and say, "I'm the person who signs the front of the paycheck for these 400 people driving these beer trucks around and I'm going to tell you my story."

Now when you do that on a cohesive level and blanket the entire country, you have a remarkable advocacy organization, which from a dollar-for-dollar perspective isn't spending anywhere near what some very large companies are spending to influence the process. But again, because they are incredibly cohesive and really well organized and can blanket Congress, they have a very outsized impact. So again, it's not money. At the end of the day, the money is a representation of scale. But what really matters is the engagement.

URBANSKI: And there's also survival on the part of those businesses, right, because the beer wholesalers, like the auto dealers, they don't really need to exist. They're an intermediary business, so they really need to watch what's going on in Washington for their survival, right?

VOGEL: That's absolutely right. And you know, to some degree this is perception, right? People will engage in Washington when they feel that, "Oh, this issue really matters to me." And one of the mistakes I've seen through my career, large and small enterprises, is waiting until they are up against an, "Oh, my gosh, this bill or this regulation would fundamentally change how we do business or whether we do it at all. We therefore need to run up to the Hill and tell them, 'Please don't do this.'"

I remember when Microsoft was growing as a company and their attitude toward Washington was, "We're selling computers. We really don't care what those guys think. We're in a business. We're not trying to play politics." When they finally realized that Washington might actually matter to them, they were in the middle of an antitrust lawsuit that threatened the structure of their entire company. They ultimately had to spend 10 or 20 times what they would have had to spend on the front end to both be known, express their opinion, not be seen as the bad guy, and build those relationships. So early and often is much cheaper than running in when it is a save-the-company, “Hey, they're going to take this middle-man out of the market and I'm going to be out of business." Early definitely trumps big and expensive.

URBANSKI: Absolutely. And—now back to some people that you and I both know well, the catalogers and the direct mailers. And they have been historically not really involved in Washington. Meanwhile, you know, when we're talking about postal rates. How the postal rates are set have a direct effect on their business and whether or not their business can even survive. As you and I both know well, back in 2007 when catalogers weren't involved, they got their rates jacked up real big and a third of them ceased to exist.

So right now on Capitol Hill, Senator Carper has just introduced a new postal reform bill, iPOST. Say I'm one of those catalogers that has not been involved. Is it too late for me to get going on this and maybe have my voice heard?

VOGEL: So A) it is not too late and B) this is a process that will take awhile. As you mentioned, Senator Carper has now released language and we're, you know, firing up the conversations around those postal reform efforts. Look, these are, as you rightly point out, these are critical issues for mailers and they need to engage and now is the time to do that. It is not too late but I can guarantee people who do not engage are unlikely to like the results once the sausage comes out the other side of the legislative process.

There are a number of people and groups that care passionately about postal reform issues. Many of them don't care about the same issue that mailers care about. And, therefore, they're going to advocate aggressively and loudly on behalf of sometimes tens and hundreds of thousands of people in their industries. And it is very important that people around the catalog industry and the mailing industry get out there and make their voices heard on these issues. The Catalog Mailers Association is working to coordinate that activity. I know they have a fly-in coming up. It's really important to show up at those events, to engage, to talk to policymakers and their staffs and say, "This is why we care. This is what this means as a bottom line matter for me."

URBANSKI: Right. Our common associate, Hamilton Davison at the Catalog Mailers Association, is working hard to get a group together for October 20. So if I'm going to take part in that, how is that going to go? How many days out of my work life is that going to take and what am I going to do when I get to Washington?

VOGEL: So the Catalog Mailers are very cognizant of the fact that, any time spent away from your business you're not running your business day-to-day, and that's hard. So this is not designed to be a "come to Washington and tour the monuments for three days and spend, you know, multiple days up on Capitol Hill." This is a fly-in. They're going to organize a tightly-packed day of meetings where the catalog mailers as a group are going to go up to the Hill, be divided into different groups based on both the issues you care about and your localities, where your company or your facilities are located so that you can make a constituent relationship, and go up and do a really intense berth of meetings to get in front of these folks. And then folks can get back on planes and get back to where they're from and get busy selling what they sell.

URBANSKI: Yeah, exactly. It sounds like it would be an interesting experience. Let's hope they get some numbers together. Alex, I'm out of time. Thanks very much for taking time to impart this valuable knowledge to our listeners. This has been Al Urbanski with Alex Vogel of VogelHood Research. And thanks again, Alex, for taking the time for us.

VOGEL: My pleasure.

URBANSKI: This concludes today's session of DC Direct. Thanks for listening. And please share the link of today's podcast with colleagues who might benefit from these valuable tips. This is Al Urbanski signing off for DC Direct. Have a wonderful day.

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