Issue Date: June 3, 2005
The lobbying game
Bringing the Catholic view to politics is science and an art
By ARTHUR JONES
Lobbyists for major Catholic organizations may get a good nights sleep. But otherwise they rarely rest. For they might miss something in the fine print of pending legislation.
It is a Friday evening in Washington in late June 2004. Linda Smith, Catholic Charities USA director for health and welfare policy, has noticed that the House of Representatives has the $7 billion Family Opportunity Act scheduled. The vote could be called at any time.
The act was presumed to be noncontroversial. Catholic Charities supported it. The act would allow middle-class families to pay premiums to get Medicaid coverage for their severely disabled children who are otherwise unable to get insurance. So far so good.
Until Smith saw how it was going to be funded: by a $7 billion cut in Medicaid services for foster children and other vulnerable populations.
Recalling that weekend, Sharon Daly, Catholic Charities vice president for social policy, said, Expand the act by all means, but not by reducing care to children who have already been abused, neglected, abandoned or taken away from their parents. They have enormous medical needs.
What Catholic Charities staff did that weekend was key; how they did it shows the Catholic lobbying system at work. First the tactic, then the end product. Daly said that by pulling on all their resources -- including pro bono help from Georgetown Law School and its federal legislation clinic -- they were able to put together rapidly a packet to describe the acts legislative history. People there worked all weekend with us, she said. Monday morning Linda and I worked the phones, calling other groups working on the issue, and talking to Democratic and Republican members, because we have relationships with them on a whole range of issues as wed worked to improve Medicaid for foster care children.
The Catholic Charities report reminded members that Congress had always intended to have the federal government reimburse the states at a higher rate for these additional Family Opportunity Act services. Whereas what the Bush administration had led Congress to believe as it pushed through this middle-class proposal was that the act was just closing a loophole.
The Republicans were persuaded not to bring the act up for a vote. Eight months later Congress is still looking for some other source of revenue to pay for the expansion.
Lobbying is a science, and an art form. As a science it is fact-driven: In politics information is power. It is an art form both in knowing what to do with the information and in the development of essential bipartisan relationships. In Washington insider parlance, lobbyists frequently wear a cloak labeled government relations, government liaison, government affairs or advocacy.
The three major Catholic organizations most focused as lobbyists are the Catholic Health Association, the U.S. Conference of Catholic Bishops and Catholic Charities. This article introduces them and their missions, and provides a sense of some of the priorities.
Its the recess at the end of the first session of the Congress. There are a half dozen people around the conference table in Suite 1000, 1825 Eye Street NW, Washington office of the St. Louis-based Catholic Health Association. The topic is Catholic access to the administration and Congress.
Lobbyists dont always get what they want, but were never defeated, we just have temporary setbacks, said a laughing Michael Rodgers, public policy and advocacy vice president for the association. (Rodgers is now currently acting association president/CEO.)
According to then-president/CEO Fr. Michael Place, when administrations change and congressional makeup shifts, lobbyists have to adjust the pieces to find a new balance. Place, who was president of Catholic Health Association for eight years, said, Each White House has its own chemistry. Clearly, in the Clinton White House, health care was a priority. We had more face time. If we had something extremely important we wanted to communicate, I could call [Chief of Staff] John Podesta and have a short phone call. The Clinton White House was eager to have our input.
The Bush White House gets its input from others, he said. It would take a great deal to get to [political strategist] Karl Rove. Thats not right or wrong. Its how the administration looks out at the world. [In this administration], on our issues, we tend to be responding to the initiatives of others.
Because were not identified as a partisan group, CHA has high credibility on Capitol Hill, said Place. Were able to work with people on both sides of the aisle. That gives us a lot of flexibility -- were representing health care as a social good, as people of faith, and were always looking to cobble together a coalition.
The others around the table also develop the relationships, the background information, the testimony, the legislative language that makes coalescing on a particular future law or regulation possible.
Public policy director Peggy Crowley was on the case last year over an amendment offered to the Medicine Modernization Act that provides funds to hospital emergency rooms treating undocumented immigrants. Rep. Dana Rohrabacher, R-Calif., wanted to require hospitals receiving the money to report their undocumented patients to Homeland Security.
Crowley mounted an aggressive campaign through Catholic Health Association members -- key to getting to the local offices of members of Congress -- and through countrywide and Washington-based coalitions concerned with immigrant rights and/or health care. The association provided the materials that kept Congressional staffers informed.
There are 435 members of the House. Rohrabachers amendment received 77 votes. It was so resounding a defeat its not going to be brought up again, said Place.
Pam Smith, government relations director, is key spokesperson for the associations advocacy and public policy positions. Catholic Health Association, Catholic Charities and the U.S. bishops conference all work together on some issues. Each organization has different areas of policy expertise, said Smith. We attempt to meet fairly regularly. Clearly, wed have knowledge -- technical reimbursement issues, for example-- knowledge Catholic Charities might not have, while [Catholic Charities] Sharon Daly would help me understand [Temporary Assistance for Needy Families] reorganization.
Therell be joint letters to Congress or the administration on some issues, so theres a consistent Catholic message across as broad a front as possible. When there are Congressional hearings on specific topics, Catholic lobbyists might be asked to testify before Congress, or suggest a bishop or another person to give testimony. Though, as Place noted, hearings are not where legislation is made, theyre where political points are scored.
Catholic lobbyists ensure that the Catholic organizations are on the record of particular committees, so that the Catholic stance is known. The organizations work closely with Senate and House staff, especially committee staff. But unlike the corporate lobbyists, there isnt a great deal of schmoozing over lunch or cocktails.
The corridor outside the House Ways and Means Committee hearing room is known as Gucci Gulch for the high quality of the shoes the well-heeled corporate lobbyists wear. Frank Monahan, the man who heads the U.S. bishops government liaison office, wiggled his serviceable black brogues. Clearly not Guccis.
The difference between the kind of lobbying we do and the classical concept of lobbyists, said Monahan, is the whole question of being involved in electioneering. That is, involved in raising money to help get people elected. Classical lobbyists go around the fundraisers, and drop a lot of money on the table that buys them access. It doesnt necessarily buy votes, but it does open doors. We dont do that. (Nor does the bishops conference use the services of paid professional lobbyist firms; Catholic Health Association, on occasion, does.)
The bishops conference has a unique role in this town, said Monahan, because first of all were the largest religion -- there are so many Catholics out there around the country. Next, the [politicians] do respect our kind of analyses of the moral dimensions of a lot of issues because thats the way they think, and thats the way they debate.
Added Monahan, whos been with the conference since the Nixon administration, and in governmental relations work since 1973, Theres a natural tendency to want to listen to our views. The church has the additional advantage of a well-developed set of social policies and a history of dealing with those policies thats highly respected.
Plus politicians are never certain of the extent to which the bishops or conference policy can influence the tens of millions of Catholic voters nationwide.
Last year, once the recommendations of the 9/11 commission to reform the intelligence laws were known, Congress spent the period from August to December attempting to enact an Intelligence Bill. Explained Michael Hill, Monahans associate director for immigration and refugees, members of the House of Representatives tacked on to the bill 12 anti-immigrant provisions that would have placed very severe restrictions on peoples ability to win asylum claims or, for example, restrictions on the ability of people here in an undocumented status to drive legally in the United States.
We weighed in very heavily, Hill said, and were instrumental in preventing the 12 provisions from being enacted. They became one of the two issues that caused the bill to go on life support toward the end of the year.
To defeat the provisions, Hill collaborated with Kevin Appleby of the bishops Migration and Refugee Services, the conferences policy office and Kelsey Wicks on Monahans staff. Among their tactics, they:
The next wave of lobbying was four or five letters signed by individual bishops to the entire House of Representatives, plus Hill and his colleagues met with House members in groups and individually.
As the provisions came up for a vote in the House Judiciary Committee and on the floor of the House, we won some, we lost some -- and lost a lot more than we won, Hill said. But at the House-Senate conference stage, with Hill and company repeating some of the methods theyd already employed, the provisions were dropped.
And thats it. Catholic lobbyists play a watching game, but its not a waiting game. Nor is it passive. The issues and interests Catholic lobbyists defend are clearly drawn; so, too, those theyll oppose.
When those interests and issues are at stake, they can and do act with alacrity -- and even, on occasion, with some publicity.
Arthur Jones is NCR editor at large. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
National Catholic Reporter, June 3, 2005
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