The other week I wrote about my unexpected experience as a lobbyist for a day. I was one of of a group of “ordinary people” brought in by an activist group so that Congress members could put a human face on the opposition to oil and gas exploration. But my first article focused on my subjective experience. Now I want to talk about the details of what we were in Washington to do and how the process of lobbying works, at least based on my limited experience of it.
Although the United States Government is generally supportive of fossil fuel use, there are limits–permits companies must obtain, leases they must take out, and regulations they must abide by. And not all places are even available for energy exploration. What we were doing in Washington was attempting to keep the Atlantic out of consideration for fossil fuel.
It’s not that that any of us really want new oil and gas exploration anywhere, but as residents of the Atlantic coast we have special standing to object to it on our doorstep. The mid-Atlantic coast specifically is an important stop for migratory birds–it’s almost not an exaggeration to say that the avian population of half of Canada funnels through here every spring and fall. We also have the densest concentration of spawning horseshoe crabs in the world every spring. We see whales, dolphins, seals, and sea turtles from our beaches. Maryland’s coastal economy depends entirely on fishing and tourism. An oil spill would be very, very bad here. The relevant regulatory agencies talk about ensuring safety, and they may well be sincere in their efforts, but even if the chance of a major accident is low for any given installation in any given year, given enough installations and enough years, a big spill is almost inevitable. And minor leaks, the kind that don’t make the news, are actually close to routine. We don’t want any.
It is true that Maryland’s coastal shelf is not being considered for oil and gas exploration–but Virginia’s is, and spilled oil does not respect state lines.
Maryland’s waters are under consideration for seismic testing, a method of searching for possible gas and oil deposits by blasting the seabed with very loud noise–it’s a kind of super-intense sonar. These noises are loud enough to kill marine animals who find themselves in the way. Others may be injured or disoriented and die later as a result. Unlike drilling, which in theory does not pose an environmental problem (the problem occurs when accidents happen, as we know they will), seismic testing definitely and inevitably kills animals, including marine mammals who are otherwise legally protected–part of the permitting process for the procedure includes a permit to kill these animals. We do not want this, either.
I admit I do not sound like a journalist at the moment. While I do not attempt the ritualistic objectivity practiced by newspeople, I seldom write about my personal opinion as such. This blog does not comment on matters unrelated to climate change and seldom takes a position on matters that fairly require judgment. So why am I writing now about pollution and animal welfare (important issues usually outside the scope of this blog) and who is this “we” I write of?
“We” is the group of people who have been involved in the protests I’m talking about. We’re not a formal, organized group (although several such groups are involved), but this isn’t something I do on my own, so it feels weird to say “I” when discussing it. As to why I’m talking about these issues–no, the topic is not carbon emissions, but without fossil fuel extraction there would be no fossil fuel use and anthropogenic climate change would not be an issue. Or, put it another way, the price of abundant energy includes not only the devastation of climate change itself but also oiled birds, gummed-up marshes, and deafened dolphins somewhere. Oil spills and climate change are inextricably linked.
Every five years, the Federal government issues a list of which areas are available for oil and gas extraction and which are not. These are large-scale decisions, lumping the coastal waters of many states into single blocks. The process is always one of reduction. The Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, or BOEM, begins by making a list of regions to be considered for inclusion. The governors of states within those regions can then opt out and some do. BOEM then solicits public feedback on the map of remaining areas and based on that feedback, more areas might be excluded from consideration. Then BOEM submits the new proposal to Congress, which approves it (Congress has the power to say no, but apparently never does), whereupon BOEM solicits public feedback again and then uses that feedback to write a final plan.
Even within that plan, BOEM does not lease out every acre, only certain blocks. And energy companies don’t drill everywhere in their leased blocks. They may actually lease a block and then decide not to drill there. At each step, the area available for drilling gets smaller–but at each step it gets harder and harder to get areas removed from consideration.
Last year, I joined a group of other activists at a scoping meeting facilitated by BOEM as part of the initial feedback process. Our purpose was to demonstrate our opposition publicly and to educate ourselves about the details of the situation (formal feedback was collected online, not at the meeting). As far as we can tell, BOEM decided not to alter the plan based on our feedback, but in the months since what had been sporadic resistance has become a vociferous movement all up and down the middle and southern reaches of the Atlantic seaboard. Whole towns have disavowed the plan. With such grassroots support, an environmental group called Oceana decided to ask members of Congress to intervene by asking members of BOEM, or others in the Administration, to drop the Atlantic from the plan before submitting it to Congress.
I was among the group of a few hundred people who converged on Washington several weeks ago to ask individual Congressmembers to get involved.
Before this event, I’d heard the phrase “lobbying on Capitol Hill” before, but it was like one of those words, like “admixture” or “indigent,” that you think you know, of course you know, but cannot actually define. I’d been to Washington DC before, but only to join political protests or to visit museums. I’d had little sense of how the place works, either as a human community or as a group of interrelated institutions. So, again, there was this sense of vague familiarity, of having seen all these grand buildings many times without really clearly knowing what people do inside them (except in a very general way–I do know how the US government works!).
In case I’m not alone in this confusion, allow me to share a few points:
“Capitol Hill” is, in fact, a low hill upon which sits the Capitol Building and several other rather august buildings, and a residential neighborhood. The offices of the members of Congress are distributed among the Capitol Building itself and two unusually attractive office blocks, all linked by a system of underground passages and above-ground ordinary sidewalks. To work “on Capitol Hill” means to have legitimate business in those buildings.
“To lobby” originally meant to stand around in the lobby of a certain hotel waiting for government officials to make themselves available so you can try to talk them in to one thing or another. The word “lobbyist” has a rather nefarious connotation, but while I’m not saying all lobbying is benign, some of it clearly is. Lobbyists are professional relationship-makers. Their job is to know the members of Congress and their staff personally, to know what constitutes “polite and friendly” behavior in such circles, and to know how to present issues in terms of each member’s actual interests. A good lobbyist knows who cares about the environment for its own sake and who cares more about the economic ramifications of an oil spill. A good lobbyist also knows which Representative is utterly focused on his or her district and who is looking for statewide support ahead of an upcoming Senate race. Without that knowledge and skill, the chance of being listened to on Capitol Hill is very slim–not because lobbyists themselves are manipulative, but simply because they are pleasant to talk to and they get to the point.
“Our” lobbyist, the Oceana employee shepherding our group from office to office, was Will, a charming, confident young man in a stylish black suit and coat. I assume that Will is short for “William,” and so the entire time I was in his company I had “I’m Just a Bill on Capitol Hill,” from Schoolhouse Rock, stuck in my head. As a gesture of respect I decided not to tell him so. I’m sure he gets it a lot.
So, on a snowy day in January, a few hundred of us from all up and down the East Coast collected in a conference room of one of the Capitol Hill office buildings for welcoming speeches, a briefing, and some fruit and baked goods. Then we broke up into groups by state, with each group led by one or two lobbyists or experienced activists. All of the meetings had been prearranged, but some of the arrangements changed at the last minute because of the snow and other issues.
Our Maryland group set out to communicate with both our Senators and also with those Representatives whose distracts included coastline. In all but one case, we met with staffers, not the actual Member (I noticed that members of Congress are always called Members, with an audible capital M and no modifier). The staffers were not mere functionaries; their responsibilities include deciding whose request has which priority, so if you want the Member to hear about you sometime before 2027, you have to be nice to the staffer. But being nice to the staffers was easy–they’re all friendly, energetic, personable folks.
Will suggested we be discrete about talking strategy while we were in the halls of government. Nothing we were doing was actually secret, or, as I understand it, unusual, but he did not want the details of our conversations to enter the local rumor mill–apparently, Capitol Hill is like one of those small towns where everybody knows everybody else’s business. Our being talked about was a complication our cause didn’t need. I am following the same suggestion now by being a little vague.
So, we talked to staffers and one Member–a personable fellow who impressed me by knowing where Newark, Maryland is, something most people who live five miles up the road can’t manage–and found everyone friendly and helpful. Our message wasn’t news to anybody, thanks to Will, who had been carefully laying groundwork. I had expected that if the Member disagreed with us his or her office might be coolly polite or even hostile and that if the Member already supported us his or her office might be impatient. Like, yeah, yeah, I heard you the first time! I was wrong on both counts.
Those who agreed with us wanted us to keep up the pressure, even intensify it, in order to give them the political cover to do what they wanted to do anyway. They’re public servants, so doing what their constituents want is their job. Those who disagreed wanted us to stay involved and to speak to their interests because, again, it is their job to be responsive. We did tailor our “ask” to our audience–in some cases we asked that the Member call someone in the Administration to request active intervention in the plan-writing process, in other cases we merely requested he or she keep an open mind towards us. We gave each Member a packet on information on the issue and how it related to his or her constituents. Mostly Will did the asking. Our job was to speak briefly and movingly of our homes and what would happen if they were covered in oil.
Do I paint an overly rosy picture of the halls of government? Perhaps–I’m giving everyone I met that day the benefit of the doubt, certainly. But at the same time I do not mean to describe Capitol Hill as a place of warm and wise cooperation among everybody. I do not mean to deny the disproportionate influence of money or the existence of backdoor deals. What I wish to deny is the common misconception of Congress as a monolithically corrupt place full of people who have the power to do exactly what we want but choose not to for nefarious reasons. Reality is more complex, more nuanced than that. More than anything else that day I was struck by how human, how interpersonal. a system it is, and how much might depend on people simply being nice to each other–not in the sense of quid pro quo or wheeling and dealing in favors, but simply because nice people are more fun to talk to. If you talk to someone they can tell you what they want and why and you might end up agreeing with them.
Lobbying on Capitol Hill means getting to know people and talking to them.