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Issue Date:  June 3, 2005

The lobbying game

Bringing the Catholic view to politics is science and an art


Lobbyists for major Catholic organizations may get a good night’s 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 act’s 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 we’d 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.

It’s 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 don’t always get what they want, but “we’re 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. That’s not right or wrong. It’s 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 we’re not identified as a partisan group, CHA has high credibility on Capitol Hill,” said Place. “We’re able to work with people on both sides of the aisle. That gives us a lot of flexibility -- we’re representing health care as a social good, as people of faith, and we’re 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. Rohrabacher’s amendment received 77 votes. “It was so resounding a defeat it’s not going to be brought up again,” said Place.

Pam Smith, government relations director, is key spokesperson for the association’s 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, we’d 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.”

There’ll be joint letters to Congress or the administration on some issues, so there’s 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, they’re 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 isn’t 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 doesn’t necessarily buy votes, but it does open doors. We don’t 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 we’re 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 that’s the way they think, and that’s the way they debate.”

Added Monahan, who’s been with the conference “since the Nixon administration,” and in governmental relations work since 1973, “There’s 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 that’s 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, Monahan’s 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 conference’s policy office and Kelsey Wicks on Monahan’s staff. Among their tactics, they:

  • Worked with House members and their staffs, “to educate them on how bad the provisions were”;
  • Wrote talking points members could use;
  • Drafted “Dear Colleague” letters that representatives could revise in their own words before sending them to other members;
  • Helped “with speeches, with what amendments ought to be offered and how to frame those amendments.”

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 they’d already employed, the provisions were dropped.

And that’s it. Catholic lobbyists play a watching game, but it’s not a waiting game. Nor is it passive. The issues and interests Catholic lobbyists defend are clearly drawn; so, too, those they’ll 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

National Catholic Reporter, June 3, 2005

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