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November 24, 2014

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J. Patrick Coolican:

When it comes to special interests, beat them at their own game

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Sam Morris

Lobbyists congregate in a hallway on Day 3 of the special legislative session Thursday, Feb. 25, 2010, in Carson City.

J. Patrick Coolican

J. Patrick Coolican

Just after the 2008 election, in which then-Sen. Barack Obama had unleashed a political machine the likes of which had never been witnessed in Nevada, I met with a prominent lobbyist to talk about the Legislature.

I wondered — naively, in retrospect — if all that grass-roots energy would be harnessed in the upcoming legislative session. It wasn’t a crazy idea. Obama had 1,200 precinct captains and 4,500 volunteers. They even met at house parties around the valley after the election to decide how to use their new power.

My lobbyist source, jaded and cynical and corpulently rich, was dismissive.

“This thing is gonna be run by 200 people,” he said, referring to the gang of power lobbyists and influential legislators, business executives and labor leaders who would lean strongly into the lawmaking process. “And then, when it comes down to it, it’s gonna really be run by 20 people.”

And boy was he right. Obama went to the White House to deal with the economic crisis and his organization mostly dissolved. Some volunteers remained active, but most, without leadership, merely watched, or probably didn’t watch, as the Nevada Legislature did its level best to triage the ongoing calamity of the state’s fortunes. And sure enough, in the end, all the decisions were made by the same small crowd.

Grass-roots energy isn’t just a left-of-center phenomenon. After the rise of the Tea Party, to which Gov. Brian Sandoval catered his campaign, one might have thought conservative activists would win steep cuts in social services and taxes and push for an Arizona-style immigration law. Instead, Sandoval avoided immigration and agreed to keep taxes that had been set to expire. And the state stumbled along, much as before, according to the ingenious stratagems of the same 200 people, most of whom were the same cast from two years before, and quite a few of whom were the same from 10 years before that.

It’s theirs.

“It’s all inside baseball,” another lobbyist told me last week, as if I needed reminding.

Many, perhaps even most, states are run this way, but there are few places where it’s so pronounced as in Nevada.

There are many reasons this is so, but the most important is a sheer accident of history: distance.

Most of us, 70 percent or more, live in Las Vegas, which is 450 miles from the state capital, Carson City. It would be as if the people of Massachusetts were represented by a legislature that meets in Harrisburg, Pa.

Although the geography has been bridged by webcasts and social media, face-to-face meetings are still the most effective way to persuade. Despite what you may think, there aren’t bags of cash being dropped in the offices of legislators, and I doubt lawmakers are influenced by dinners in the capital’s two main eating haunts. The influence game is far more subtle and insidious. It’s expertise. Lobbyists for the Strip bring years — often decades — of experience around the legal, tax, policy and regulatory issues at stake. The same is true in mining, health care, electricity and water. It’s simple: They bring compelling arguments.

The legislators, meeting every other year for 120 days, are inundated with information and have limited time and staff to sort through it all. With term limits, the ability to develop expertise about complicated issues such as electric utility law, which can take years of close study, is gone.

And there’s no way to say this without sounding condescending, but here goes: Many legislators just aren’t equipped to deal with the flood of bad data and sophistry that comes their way in the form of bought-and-paid-for arguments of the state’s powerful interests.

Who can afford to bring this expertise? Who can afford to gather the data, hire persuasive lobbyists and fly them up to Carson City every week to make the argument?

The same interests that can afford to write big campaign checks once the legislative session is finished and the lawmakers need money for re-election or the next elective office.

We’re talking mostly about corporations and labor unions.

Do either corporations or labor unions represent your interests?

In 2008, Thomas Frank wrote a book called “The Wrecking Crew,” which was about how Washington had become captive to the special interest lobbying class and its Republican allies. It sure felt true during the Bush years, but Nicholas Lemann wrote a compelling critique in which he examined the entire notion of “special interests” as explained by early 20th-century political thinker Arthur Bentley in “The Process of Government: A Study of Social Pressures.”

Bentley argued that politics and governance are nothing more than the shifting alliances, deal-making, and victory and defeat of interest groups. We aren’t a collective body politic. We’re just a bunch of interest groups.

People inveigh against “special interests,” but what they’re really protesting is that some interest is in opposition to their own interest. They then call this political opponent a “special interest.”

So, for example, parents with children in school say the “special interests” should pay more in taxes for better schools. Meanwhile, however, the shareholders of mining companies could just as easily say parents are a “special interest” who want to reduce the mining industry’s hard-earned profit.

There is no common good. See, we’re all part of “special interest” groups, often several, so we’re all represented in some way in Carson City.

Politics is merely the task of sorting out the winners from the losers.

I often hear this deeply cynical view of government from insiders. And it’s hard to argue with it when you see it happen every other year for 120 days.

Indeed, as for now, wealthy corporations are a more powerful interest group than the parents of school-aged children, but rather than moralizing about how our government is under the thumb of the special interests, you should just focus on playing the game better than other interests do. The way to do that is to convince legislators that your interest, be it as the parent of a child in public school or the shareholder of a mining company, deserves to win out over the others.

In practical terms, what does that mean?

It means paying attention to what they’re doing in Carson City and organizing your friends, neighbors and co-workers. Legislators listen to voters, so you need to get them organized, then cajole and browbeat and ultimately convince lawmakers with emails and postcards and phone calls and, if possible, trips to the Legislature. It’s hard work. But if you don’t do it, here’s what will happen: Those same 200 people will make all the decisions about the state’s future. Of that, I can assure you.

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  1. Indifference has never influenced a legislator's vote. If an issue is important to you, get on their case and stay on it.

  2. I see, it was lobbyists who were at fault for Osama Obama's putrid record on the economy. While I have no use for paid lobbyists, the folks we send to Carson City & Washington, DC are supposed to be able to walk & chew gum at the same time. When campaigning, they are the smartest people on Earth, but once elected, they suddenly become dummies? As for term limits hampering those walking the halls of power because they have only 12 years to learn their job? That's about as nutty as a Snickers Bar. If I had an employee who didn't catch on within a few weeks, he/she was shown the door. Well, in at least one aspect, Coolican's dopey screed is welcome. He doesn't blame George W!

  3. "Many legislators just aren't equipped to deal with the flood of bad data and sophistry that comes their way in the form of bought-and-paid-for arguments of the state's powerful interests. . . . .Who can afford to bring this expertise? Who can afford to gather the data, hire persuasive lobbyists and fly them up to Carson City every week to make the argument?. . . . .We aren't a collective body politic. We're just a bunch of interest groups."

    Coolican -- another good one from you. Having been a long-time citizen lobbyist in another state, your views are pretty much right on. I used to ask various whiners to tell me about the last time they contacted their state reps and state senators. Nearly every time the answer was "who?" Then I'd tell them the same thing -- go look in the mirror, because that's who to blame.

    Far too many forget or completely ignorant of the fact our legislature is exactly what the website says -- "The People's Branch of Government." In my experience the committees were far more interested in what a common citizen facing the consequences of their laws had to say than the suits. But far too few citizens are interested.

    Your last part about paying attention is excellent advice. And yes, changing laws is "hard work." But that's how things get changed.

    "If an issue is important to you, get on their case and stay on it."

    pisces -- excellent advice from a presumably fellow citizen. I would add don't go to your legislator simply whining, go with a solution, then stay with his/her staff to draft the bill, be alert to gut-and-stuff amendments, lobby other local legislators, then be available to testify, etc.

    "As for term limits hampering those walking the halls of power because they have only 12 years to learn their job?"

    lvfacts -- good point. And Coolican's "screed" is not a bit "dopey."

    "First off all politics in Nevada should be held in Las Vegas since we pay most of the bills."

    chuck -- then you'd have to change the Constitution. See http://www.leg.state.nv.us/Const/NVConst...

    "I am persuaded myself that the good sense of the people will always be found to be the best army... Among the [European governments], under pretence of governing they have divided their nations into two classes, wolves & sheep. I do not exaggerate. This is a true picture of Europe. ... If once [our people] become inattentive to the public affairs, you & I, & Congress & Assemblies, judges & governors shall all become wolves. It seems to be the law of our general nature, in spite of individual exceptions; and experience declares that man is the only animal which devours his own kind, for I can apply no milder term to the governments of Europe, and to the general prey of the rich on the poor." -- Thomas Jefferson, from his letter to Edward Carrington, Paris, Jan. 16, 1787 (found in The Works of Thomas Jefferson, vol. 5 (Correspondence 1786-1787))

  4. Obviously important for each to voice her/his concerns to Legislators. Also important to voice those concerns to friends, neighbors, LVSun, and such, as JPC points out. 2/3 of Americans want immigration reform but that does NOT mean opening another pathway to citizenship. It means many OTHER things such as enforcement against birthing centers, tracking VISAs, restricting temporary work permits to NOT confer birth-right citizenship to workers progeny. Reform would START with securing the borders and tracking VISAs.

  5. Jerry Fink "As for term limits hampering those walking the halls of power because they have only 12 years to learn their job? That's about as nutty as a Snickers Bar. If I had an employee who didn't catch on within a few weeks, he/she was shown the door."

    And if an elected person doesn't catch on they can be shown the door in the next election.

    Take a look at the other side of your anecdote. How would you feel if that 'key' employee of yours, that you spent years training, has the expertise that can only be gained with on-the-job experience, was mandated to leave after 12 years? Kind of foolish don't you think?

  6. "...restricting temporary work permits to NOT confer birth-right citizenship to workers progeny."

    Roslenda -- don't be so ignorant. All born in the U.S.A. get automatic citizenship, that's a promise of the 14th Amendment. Assuming you don't have Indian genes, what exactly do you have against people who come here likely looking for the same thing YOUR ancestors came here for?

    "And if an elected person doesn't catch on they can be shown the door in the next election."

    Bill_G -- the only thing our elected legislators need to "catch on" to is to 1) represent their constituents' interests in government and 2) take their oaths seriously. A professional government is pretty much what got us in the mess we're in now. Coolican's point "We aren't a collective body politic" is excellent on multiple levels. Like what Jefferson said.

    "The struggle for liberty has been a struggle against Government. The essential scheme of our Constitution and Bill of Rights was to take Government off the backs of people." -- Columbia Broadcasting Sys., Inc. v. Democratic Nat'l Comm., 412 U.S. 94, 162 (1973), Justice Douglas concurring

  7. In my opinion the biggest threat to our democracy is term limits. As I described in my previous post, we are purging our best and brightest along with the bad. This was unnecessary because we as a whole have always purged the bad in elections (if they didn't flat out resign themselves after exposing a scandal). This was simply a ploy to remove very popular candidates (and you don't get popular from being a 'bad' candidate)

    The fourth estate plays a major role in maintaining the integrity of elected offices. Some argue the fourth estate has been weakened because of the internet. I agree only in financial terms, but overall the fourth estate was expanded with the internet. We have gone through an adjustment period, but the cream is rising to the top, and we now have access like never before. Fact checking and transparency have been greatly expanded. The game of out-of-context sound bites is dying (the main reason the Republican message no longer works, it is usually out of context)

  8. Another well-written article by Coolican and more good thoughts from KILLERB. Worth sharing with your friends and colleagues.

  9. "In my opinion the biggest threat to our democracy is term limits."

    Bill_G -- except for "the biggest threat" part, I agree. Who to elect is up to the voters in any particular district. A law restricting that choice is a slippery slope, I think. You comment about the "fourth estate" also makes good points. The omnipresent media can and does manufacture public opinion. Combined with the pandering of politicians and the herd mentality of most of the body politick, that's a combination bad for public policy.

    "Another well-written article by Coolican and more good thoughts from KILLERB. Worth sharing with your friends and colleagues."

    lbfromlv -- gosh

    "Democracy is a device that insures we shall be governed no better than we deserve." -- George Bernard Shaw, Irish playwright, 1925 Nobel Prize winner

  10. Great work, J.Patrick Coolican! Very well stated. Commenters also bring to the table how the game of politics needs to be played. I especially agree with Commenter John Cheney88, who voices the need to have live, real-time coverage of the Nevada State Legislature in action. Combine that with social media as Twitter, Facebook, and emails, then the little guy Citizen of Nevada stands a chance of being heard.

    Distance is a real problem, and perhaps this is a time to MOVE such gatherings, as the Nevada State Legislative Session, to where MOST of the state's population resides: in Clark County, Nevada. Precious few everyday Citizens, can afford to pay for fuel, lodging, and time off from their jobs (if their employers will even let them go), to make the trip to Carson City to stand and voice their concerns, individually or collectively. It is clear that the elite few can, and it is FACT that they seem to rule the roost on the backs of the lesser. Class stratification is clearly demonstrated in Nevada governance.

    Journalist J.Patrick Coolican said it well, "The influence game is far more subtle and insidious. It's expertise." And all I can say is, "Follow the MONEY TRAIL with Nevada politics."

    Blessings and Peace,
    Star

  11. Speaking of "special" interest groups, have you noticed all the recent advertising by the mining industry? Look up Nevada SJR15.

  12. Citizen knowledge and involvement is essential to good citizenship. Each of us should be lobbyist's of a sort.

    If we don't take responsibility, we might as well forget electing politicians and just vote for lobbyist representatives. They should only be the people's lobbyists.

    We have too many laws written by special interest's lawyers, and causing the inability of our representatives "to develop expertise about complicated issues such as electric utility law, which can take years of close study".

    Perhaps we need a long term effort to simplify the laws, weed out the complexities that the lawyers have woven.

    Perhaps we need to stop electing lawyers to political offices, and limit what lobbyists can do.

  13. All special interest, but no lobbyists for the public: this is the biggest threat to a democracy. These are the same guys that threaten legislators with outside campaign money to defeat them if the votes aren't among the desired.

    Judging from their waistlines, they have been very successful in their political endeavors yet none of them have been able to step up to driving an MGB.

  14. If you happen to visit Carson City and experience a collision with a naval, you can be certain that a lobbyist is not far behind.

  15. Special interest Lobbyist: K-12. Let's get the Legislature back on track for the good of all citizens. We need essential services an reasonable costs--cut government employee compensation. No more for K-12. It's broken and money will not fix it.

  16. Killer 8:33 a.m. You seem IGNORANT of the fact that "birth right" citizenship was not even considered until SCOTUS did a one-time Wong Kim Ark decision where a young Asian of questionable citizenship was allowed free K-12. The 14th Amendment clearly states that CONGRESS regulates immigration. There is NOTHING that says CONGRESS cannot restrict citizenship to those born here LEGALLY--when the parents are here legally. Nothing precludes CONGRESS from also restricting those born here to parents here on TEMPORARY WORK PERMITS where there is no intention of authorizing immigration of parents or children. Maybe we should look at REPEALING 1986 amnesty.