Why we must lobby: 10 truths of dealing with Big Government
by ICFA General Counsel Robert M. Fells, Esq.
By the time this issue is published in November, the first session of the 109th Congress probably will have adjourned for the year. This momentary pause in the relentless pursuit of an ever-growing body of legislation and regulation provides an opportunity to reflect on common falsehoods that many cemetery and funeral home professionals harbor about government relations.
Unfortunately, such reliance on these falsehoods will hurt their businesses and thereby hinder their ability to prosper in the years ahead. Such reliance also weakens the united front that every industry or profession must achieve if it is to be successful in its government relations efforts. To counter these falsehoods, this special "Washington Report" series will discuss what might be called "10 truths in government relations and how to make them work for you."
As background, let's return to the evening of January 23, 1996, when President Bill Clinton delivered his annual State of the Union address before both houses of Congress, the justices of the U.S. Supreme Court, his Cabinet secretaries representing the federal regulatory agencies, generals and other high ranking military officers comprising the Joint Chiefs of Staff and of course the national and international media.
In front of that august assembly, President Clinton made a statement that would be quoted the following day in front-page headlines around the world. Clinton announced,
"The era of big government is over." Cynics would point out that the president would be running for re-election later that year, and observers who listened carefully to that particular State of the Union address noted that before the president was finished speaking, he had proposed six or seven new big government programs!
To nobody's surprise, the size of the federal government was larger when Clinton left office than when he entered it. But to be fair, the same can be said of his predecessors, whether Democrat or Republican, going back at least to Lyndon Johnson in the 1960s, and really beginning with Franklin Roosevelt in the 1930s. Even Ronald Reagan, who famously stated, "The best government is the least government," left office after eight years with a larger federal government than when his administration began.
The government grows no matter who is in charge
Today, the federal government continues to expand under President George W. Bush, even with his fellow Republicans having majorities in both houses of Congress. This reality brings us an unavoidable question: What consequences does an expanding federal government have for cemeteries, funeral homes and related businesses? And more important, are we relying on assumptions or even delusions to assure ourselves that we have everything under control?.
To place the issue of big government into perspective, let's recall Winston Churchill's observation about our particular form of government. Never a man to mince his words, Churchill said that democracy is the worst form of government - except for all the others. Unlike the Founding Fathers, many of today's members of Congress occupy lifetime positions there. For example, Sen. Christopher Dodd (D-CT), author of the proposed Federal Death Care Disclosure and Inspection Act, first came to Congress at the age of 19 as a page, and never left. Today, Dodd has been a senator for over a quarter century after first being elected a Congressman and serving in the House. And this senator's longevity in the halls of Congress is more the rule than the exception.
So it is important to understand that Sen. Dodd and his 534 colleagues who make up the U.S. Congress are businesspeople just like we are. Their business is government, and they, like us, want to see their business grow. So one falsehood we should identify is that politicians are somehow "different" from the rest of us and, specifically, they don't understand "business."
On the contrary, using the government as a business model, politicians know very well that their "employer" rewards success and punishes failure, and that they must always be looking for new customers in order to survive in their chosen field.
However, this lifelong career attitude by many members of Congress does not entirely explain why the federal government continues to expand regardless of which political party is in charge. We should be honest enough to assign the responsibility to where it belongs. The only reason our government has gotten such a far reach into our lives today is because we the people, whether we live in the blue states or the red states, have come to accept such intervention as normal.
The perception seems to be that the American people today almost instinctively respond to any given problem by thinking, "Well, what's the government going to do about it?" This attitude is music to the ears of our politicians and suggests that, if only by default, we are happy to become their customers. Even the Internal Revenue Service has picked up on this mindset by referring to the taxpayers it audits as "customers."
Having established that regardless of who is in power, the national government keeps growing bigger, let's talk about the implications of that fact.
#1: We can have an impact
The first truth we should identify, and it is very good news, is that our form of government depends on the active participation of interested parties in order for it to work to our advantage. These parties—by that I mean us—can and do have a great influence on the outcome of legislation and regulation.
Cynics like to condescendingly brand such interested parties as "special interest groups," but in fact everyone is a member of a special interest group. Some of us are even members of more than one group. If you belong to AARP, you're a member of a special interest group. If you belong to the American Legion, you're a member of a special interest group. So don't let the label fool you. If you know anybody who is not a member of a special interest group, he or she is probably dead.
#2: Many choose not to make their voices heard
It is surprising to see how many people choose to abstain from voicing their views to their elected leaders, especially when the issue involves their livelihood. This leads us to the second truth in government relations. ICFA President Ray Frew summed up the problem effectively in his letter in the August-September issue of ICFM (INCLUDE LINK) when he said that when it comes time to communicate our views to our elected leaders, too many of our colleagues are "abdicating" instead of "advocating." Sadly, that is true.
Most politicians will readily admit that they know little or nothing about our businesses. All they know about us is what interested parties choose to tell them. So if the only interested parties they hear from are our critics, who say that we are dishonest and should be intensely regulated, can we blame our elected officials if they believe it? Most "abdicators" among our colleagues will console themselves with the thought that some of their ICFA colleagues are speaking up for them, so they don't have to bother. But politicians are very good at counting votes. So if a lot of people call us dishonest and just a few voices discuss our integrity, guess who wins?
Therefore, the second truth is that in lobbying, 100 people who let one person express their views will not be as persuasive as 10 people who each do their own talking. Professional lobbyists are very good at providing opportunities to voice our concerns by opening doors for us, but we have to walk through those doors.
This brings to mind the old expression, "Money talks." That's also true in lobbying efforts, but not for the reasons many may think. Experienced lobbyists tell us money can't "buy" a vote, but it can provide access to an elected member of Congress or of the state house. There is nothing sinister in this, yet the connotation that this practice somehow smacks of "dirty politics" conveniently provides a rationale for some businesspeople to avoid politics like the plague.
#3: Campaign contributers are choice 'customers'
Ask yourself this simple question: If you had time to see only one person, who would you choose, a good customer who brings you business or a complete stranger who may or may not become a customer in the future? Politicians think the same way.
Waging an effective campaign for office takes a great deal of financial support. When we contribute to a politician's election campaign, we in effect become one of his or her customers. As with your own customers, this entitles us to a certain access to that individual or to a responsible staff person, but it does not entitle us to demand things any more than we would agree to demands made from our own customers. And that's the third truth: just as you make time to meet with your established customers, so do politicians.
Our businesses are undergoing a major transition of consumer preferences from what we have known in the past, but many of our colleagues seem to be in denial about it. And many of us who understand what's going on may be uncertain of what exactly to do about it. To illustrate the point, let me refer to an incident that actually happened right in the offices of the ICFA not long ago.
We sometimes contact members who live within driving distance of our conferences. If nearby members have not yet signed up for the conference, ICFA staff gives them a call shortly before the meeting to invite them to attend. One of our staff called a cemetery manager and told him about a particular conference which featured new speakers and examined new trends. The member on the phone listened politely and then said, "Look, I've been running this cemetery for 25 years now, and if you can tell me how burying a body has changed in the last 25 years, maybe I'll come to your meeting."
The gentleman obviously missed the point. He was correct that burying a body hasn't changed in 25 years, but the public's need for burying, due to the rise in the popularity of cremation in particular, is changing dramatically. And that fact will significantly affect this man's business and may even drive him out of business if he doesn't wake up to this fact.
The number of registered lobbyists in our nation's capital had more than doubled, from 16,000 to over 34,000 during the last five years. But even more surprising, most of these lobbyists are being hired by businesses, and not to oppose anti-business legislation, as we might reasonably assume, but to promote legislation of their own making. In other words, the business community has transitioned from lobbying only when necessary to defend itself against objectionable legislation or regulations to drafting and advocating new laws they want enacted to help their businesses grow.
#4: We need Laws R Us to deal with Government Inc.
This brings me to the fourth truth: If today's politicians can be considered businesspeople running an entity called "Government Inc.," then traditional businesspeople, including funeral directors and cemeterians, must increasingly start behaving like politicians by running a subsidiary called "Laws R Us."
Actually, many funeral directors and their trade associations have pro-actively lobbied for new laws to benefit their businesses for decades. But this activity had been primarily confined to the state level; today the business community has moved en masse to the federal level. This shift did not happen overnight; it has been in the works for decades.