How to Get Your Way in Washington

It was the mid-1990s and Bill Gates and Microsoft were riding high. Gates lorded over the World Wide Web. He was sequestered in his rainy Northwestern fiefdom, far from the legislators and bureaucrats in the nation’s capital. He’d never reached out to them. He never thought he needed to. Then, one day, the FTC decided that Microsoft might have an operating system monopoly.

Longtime lobbyist Alex Vogel, who now heads the political analytics firm VogelHood Research, was chief counsel to Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist when Gates deigned to pay his respects to the Washington power elite. He arrived late for his audience with one of the nation’s most powerful legislators, but that wasn’t his chief mistake; it was arriving without an agenda. “Gates came in with his government affairs person and took a seat,” said Vogel, who sat behind Frist in high-level meetings of this sort. “The Senator asked him what he could do for him, and there was silence. He looked back at his government affairs guy, who had a look on his face that said, ‘Maybe we should have done some preparation for this meeting.’ When Gates left, Senator Frist looked at me and said, ‘Really? That’s it?’”

Vogel’s first rule of engaging with Washington power brokers: Know what you want from them, and let them know what you want from them. They’re very busy, their attention is diverted in a hundred directions, and they need you to get to the point. “Know the ‘ask,’” Vogel said. “Know the bill in question, know the title of it, and know the underlying issues you’d like addressed.”

Not knowing the ask and not knowing anybody in Washington cost Bill Gates about 10 times what it might have to settle his antitrust case, Vogel said in prepping members of American Catalog Mailers Association prior to their own Capitol Hill visits this week. Some other words of lobbying wisdom from Vogel:

Know your elected officials and interface with them early and often. Write to them via email and the post (they’ll get the letter two weeks later, after it’s been irradiated, and it’ll be like a follow-up). Every letter and email is cataloged. Phone them. Donate money to them. Engage with them at town halls. Invite them to tour your office. If you really want attention, enlist in their campaigns.

Be happy to meet with their 22-year old assistants. Washington is run by underpaid assistants who investigate and vet every issue in detail. “Clients complain they came to Washington and only got to meet with a staffer and not their representative,” said Vogel (at left). “I tell them, ‘Sorry, but that’s the person who makes the decision on your issue.’ In every committee hearing, which is where bills live or die, there is an assistant sitting next to them who’s versed in that issue. The Senator leans over to them. They say, ‘I suggest you do this, Senator,’ and that’s what they do.”

Build coalitions. Every issue that affects your business in some material way is likely to be affecting businesses in other verticals similarly. Find out who they are and bond with them. Do an assessment of how many jobs or how much contribution to GDP will be affected by the passage or non-passage of a bill and arm your elected official with that information when the bill goes to committee.

Let them take credit. If things go your way on the Hill and your business thrives as a result, invite the representative or senator who helped you to cut the ribbon on the new facility or branch you’re opening. They will jump at the chance. “They love the opportunity to walk your facility and get their pictures taken with employees so they can appear on the news saying, ‘I’m creating jobs,’” Vogel said. “It also gives you the opportunity to spend time with them and ask for more help. That’s really important.”

Push your position. Vogel said he knew a wealthy business owner who kept his political activities separate from his business, thinking that it would be untoward of him to ask for favors based on his support of candidates. Wrong move. “If you’re involved politically, share your views,” Vogel stressed. “There’s nothing tawdry about it. There was a time when candidates wouldn’t discuss special interests during an election. No more. Now they will talk about anything to anyone at any time.”

Have an ongoing dialog with Washington. “If you just think to call when you need something,” Vogel counseled, “it’s too late.”

One company that has learned that lesson well–perhaps from Microsoft, a predecessor of theirs in the Internet domination game–is Google. Last month The Wall Street Journal reported that Google reps had visited the White House an average of once a week throughout the run of the Obama administration. Google protested that many of those 230-odd visits were tech calls to fix Healthcare.gov, and perhaps so. Vogel would say, however, that it didn’t necessarily matter what they were discussing. They showed up early and often.

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