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From bill to books: A look into the role of lobbyists in the legislative process

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The 2009 Washington Senate sits during a floor session Friday.

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Student lobbyist Richard Lum sits in on a public hearing with the House Higher Education Committee. During a public hearing, lobbyists are given the opportunity to testify to the committee in favor of, or in opposition to, a bill.

When discussing the legislative process, political science professor Lloyd Jansen emphasizes the failure, or death of bills — rather than their success — as few bills actually survive to become law. Last year, for example, only 328 of the 1,747 bills introduced in the state Legislature became laws.

“Bills don’t move by themselves,” said Stephen Lindstrom, an advisor for the Washington Student Lobby (WSL). “A good lobby team anticipates what will be needed next and goads them [the bills] through the legislative process.”

Two lobbyists represent UW students.

David Iseminger, who is finishing a law degree and a master’s in public health at the UW, represents the Graduate and Professional Student Senate, and Richard Lum, representing the Associated Students of the University of Washington, are two lobbyists who are pushing for bills that would help UW students, while trying to amend or stop bills that would do the opposite.

This year, they will be focusing on tuition, financial aid, student representation, safety and student support services — categories chosen by the WSL.

The WSL collectively decides which issues to focus on, and ranks them in order of importance, Iseminger said.

The lobbyists’ first job is to convince senators and representatives to turn their ideas into bills.

Although representatives and senators are the only people who can introduce bills, they often take ideas from lobbyists, Jansen said. Constituents or others in government, including the governor, can also recommend bill ideas.

After a bill is introduced, the majority party leadership sends it to a standing committee, such as the House Higher Education Committee or Senate Transportation Committee, where it is considered with similar bills.

Committees can recommend that the bills pass or fail, or they can take no action on them. They can also change bills using amendments or substitutes.

A committee chairperson can effectively kill a bill by refusing to put it on the agenda. If a committee takes no action on a bill, it will disappear at the end of the biennium.

Committees often hold public hearings in which anyone can tell the committee why they think that passing, rejecting or amending a bill would the best idea.

Lobbyists, like Lum and Iseminger, speak at public committee hearings and coordinate the testimony of others.

If the majority of legislators on the committee vote in favor of passing the bill, the chairperson recommends the bill for passage, and the bill is referred to the Rules Committee.

The House and Senate Rules Committees formally narrow the number of bills that will be heard on the floor of the House or Senate for amendments, passage or rejection.

Party leadership decides how many bills make it from the Rules Committee to the floor. Often each committee member can only choose one, two or three bill suggestions for the floor, but theoretically, leadership could give the committee members any number of suggestions.

In the House Rules Committee, the bill suggestions of each member are compiled into a list, and the committee votes whether or not to send the entire list to the House of Representatives for amendment, passage or failure.

In the Senate Rules Committee, bills are suggested, and the committee collectively decides whether or not to send each bill to the floor.

“Typically, the minority party can only pull technical bills or bills with bipartisan support,” said Gerry Sheehan, the staff coordinator for the Legislative Information Center.

The Senate Rules Committee puts a tremendous amount of pressure on the minority party to suggest only bills approved by the majority party, Sheehan said.

Each committee member has a limited number of bills that they can sponsor, and if a bill is voted down by the group, the committee member who suggested it won’t get another bill to replace it.

“When bills are in the rules committee, [lobbyists] talk to the members about getting them pulled to the floor,” said Steve DuPont, a government relations specialist at Central Washington University (CWU).

After a bill is passed by the House or Senate, it proceeds to the other branch, where must go through the same process.

If both branches pass the bill, the governor can sign it, veto it or veto sections of it. If five days pass, and the governor takes no action, the bill automatically becomes a law, if the legislature is in session. If the legislature is not in session, the governor has 20 days to take action on a bill.

The best lobbyists are involved in the legislative process from the moment a bill is introduced until the governor signs it into law, Lindstrom said.

The most effective lobbyists know the legislators, understand the legislative process and supply legislators with relevant, useful facts, Sheehan said.

“They run the gamut from being very effective to being pariahs where nobody wants to see them,” he said.

Lobbyists and legislative liaisons from seven colleges — the UW, CWU, Washington State University, Western Washington University, Eastern Washington University, The Evergreen State College and Bellevue Community College — work together to represent student interests. Together, they form the WSL.

Lobbyists are a good investment because they save students more money on tuition than their salary cost, said Sen. Ken Jacobson, D-Seattle.

“Knowing you have given legislators information they need to make the best possible decision is very rewarding,” Iseminger said.

Reach reporter Kaitlin Strohschein at features@dailyuw.com

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