A Look Back — and Ahead — at Lobbying

Filed in Advocacy by on February 10, 2017 2 Comments

capitolFor 75 years, NAHB has worked to convince lawmakers to support legislation that helps the home building industry grow.

And in an era where legislators on both sides of the aisle find it harder to work together, it’s even more important that NAHB lobbyists encourage and advocate for laws that offer a win for all: policies that promote more homeownership and rental housing opportunities.

“We have the luxury of working for an industry that wears a white hat,” says NAHB Executive Vice President and Chief Lobbyist Jim Tobin. “We’re an American-made product. There are home builders in every district in every state. We’re important to the tax base. We offer jobs. And our members are community leaders who aren’t just providing shelter, they’re providing stability and community leadership.”

But just like in home building, the tools have changed.

An ‘Arm’s Length’ Relationship

Thirty or 40 years ago, a friendly lunch was one way for both lobbyists and legislators to take each other’s measure and establish a sense of trust – and pave the way to talk the pros and cons of legislation or float ideas for improvement.

A wave of reform in the mid-90s did away with this practice – and that still has far-reaching consequences, said NAHB CEO Jerry Howard.

“You can’t buy votes by taking people to lunch, or the ballpark or the theater. But what it did was solidify relationships and help develop trust. It allowed people to know whether lobbyists were credible conveyors of information,” Howard said.

“Now, lawmakers are inundated with information, but they have less opportunity to determine whether people [who deliver it] are credible. It’s one of the things that has contributed to the polarization on the Hill. Back in the day, a member of Congress would have gotten to know the lobbyists on both sides, and that makes for more balanced opinions. Now, all arguments must be more finely tuned and irrefutable, because you get far fewer bites at the apple.”

Keep it Quick, Keep it Short

NAHB lobbyists still wear a path between the National Housing Center and congressional offices. But texts and emails are now the primary tools they use to get their messages to legislators. “For most [congressional] staffers, it’s their preferred method of communication,” Tobin said.

It means messages need to be short and to the point. “You have to boil it down to a page, or a half a page. Attention spans are much shorter today,” he said. “Nothing will ever replace shoe-leather lobbying, but people are much busier, and they’d rather not have to take the time to interact with a lobbyist with meetings in the front office.”

Less Balance, More Partisanship

Both political parties bear responsibility for gerrymandering and carving up congressional districts to make it easier for one party or another to gain a vote. It’s not like the old days, Howard said, when the balance in a typical district might be closer to 50-50.

“There used to be a time when both Republicans and Democrats felt more of a moral obligation to be more moderate in their views, to try to find that middle ground,” Howard said.

“Now, it’s people from the extremes of both parties who are being elected, and that makes coalescing around a common view extremely rare. It’s dehumanized the process. Everything is ideological, and extremism has a much greater opportunity to prevail.”

The Growth of Grassroots

Few things are more important to a politician than staying in office, so they want to make sure their constituents are happy. That means that regularly gathering a group of home builders to meet with their member of Congress and their staff is more important than ever.

“It’s always better than cold calls from your office,” Tobin said. “We need to build those relationships, so when I need a senator or a representative to take a specific action for the industry, we have the people we need to move our agenda.”

New messaging tools make it easier for NAHB to target association members in specific legislative districts to encourage them to add their voices, and for NAHB to send emails to the legislators themselves. “We’re much more effective today,” he said.

As part of the Midyear Meeting in Washington this spring, NAHB will hold its biennial Legislative Conference June 14, when builders, remodelers and their trade partners will meet with their members of Congress to talk about issues of importance to the home building industry.

“I hope we break our attendance records this year,” Tobin said. “As an industry, we have a positive, affirming story to tell, and our members are the folks who need to get it across.”

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Comments (2)

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  1. Ashley B Richards Jr says:

    Right on Jerry & Jim! If nothing else the recent election has energized Americans and they are speaking up on the right, on the left and in the middle. Democracy only works if the people speak up and participate in the process. Maine will set a record for LC attendance this year.

  2. Michael Kurpiel says:

    In such a highly regulated industry, with hundreds of thousands of building related jobs, I am always amazed at how much NAHB achieves for all with actual participation numbers in the single %.

    NAHB’s government affairs staff, senior officers and truly politically engaged members are the true leaders of our home building industry.

    Please, share this article with your local HBA members. Demonstrate what has been done with a few and then ask the question “what could be done with many?”

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