For the people

It is often said that law is like sausage -- it's better not to see how it's made. And, here, lobbying plays an integral role in the complex, and often messy, legislative process.

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While many people these days, especially those who focus on recent influence-peddling scandals, may think lobbyists spend their days playing golf or drinking or throwing bags of cash at members of Congress, they are wrong. Ethical lobbyists, like those who represent the Washington, D.C.-based National Association of Home Builders’ interests on Capitol Hill, are the norm, not the exception. And they are vital to ensuring that our legislators and their staff members have all the information necessary to craft the best possible legislation.

In late December, NAHB lobbyist Greg Brown, a veteran of NAHB’s multifamily area with an expertise in low-income-housing tax credits (LIHTC) and his boss, Jim Tobin, who oversees the work of the organization’s eight federal lobbyists, explained how the Home Builders’ organization works to persuade lawmakers to create legislation that best serves the residential industry, both on the single-family and multifamily sides. Tobin and Brown and the other seven federal NAHB lobbyists, whose work is overseen by Senior Staff VP Joe Stanton, regularly meet with and educate members of Congress and Hill staff about housing industry problems and concerns, in order to provide the lawmakers with good, solid reasons to support measures that speak to the concerns of the residential industry.

NAHB’s non-partisan nature gives the organization clout on both sides of the political fence. “We are a housing organization and, as such, we support both Republicans and Democrats in Congress via our political action committee BUILD-PAC. We don’t give based on party. We give based on someone’s support for housing generally,” explained Brown, adding that it is important to have champions in both the House and Senate for the legislative solutions he and his peers promote.

If Tobin were to write a list of priorities for NAHB’s lobbyists in the short term, he said, “Housing stimulus on the federal level is number one, number two and number three and you could probably go down to number 10 on that. Until the economy turns around and starts reporting a real uptick in growth, I think that will dominate NAHB’s policy objectives on the federal level.”

Advocating for those objectives means following the rules. Anything that might look like a bribe, including treating lawmakers and others on The Hill to lunch or dinner, was deemed illegal a couple of years ago, when the Democrats took over the legislature, but those regulations against paying for meals and other gifts don’t diminish the lobbyists’ relationship-building abilities or their effectiveness.

“There are still provisions in the law that allow for widely attended events, so you can host receptions for Hill staff, but if you serve food, you’d better be able to eat it with your fingers or a toothpick,” Tobin explained, adding that he worked on the Hill for a while before becoming a lobbyist and saw no behavior that indicated that Hill staff or any members of Congress would sell out for a steak or glass of wine. Instead, those meals helped with relationship building, which is critical for earning the trust of Hill staff and members of Congress.

“You do that through the regular legal fundraising channels, where we have opportunities to talk with members of Congress, and you build up trust by giving not only your side of the issue, but also telling them where they are going to hear opposition to your proposal or where they are going to hear criticism. You do that through grassroots and you do that through direct contact,” Tobin said.

If NAHB’s lobbyists want to introduce a new stimulus proposal, they simply do it with boots on the ground and shoe leather. They use faxes and emails and direct lobbying into those offices in Washington, D.C., visiting with White House staff and members of Congress to get their message across.

“Right now, a typical day is on the phone or up on the Hill or both, talking with offices for members of Congress, making sure they understand where we are on an issue and that they have our information if there’s a specific issue we’re asking them to weigh in on with the chairman of a committee or a piece of legislation we’d like them to support,” said Brown, who is NAHB’s tax lobbyist with responsibility to keep up with what’s going on at the House Ways and Means Committee and the Senate Finance Committee, and also a generalist, whose territory consists of the congressional delegations of Texas, Oklahoma and Louisiana.

“And there are seven others just like him, who wear multiple hats and are NAHB’s faces and ears and eyes on Capitol Hill,” said Tobin.

Keeping abreast of what’s going on with various pieces of legislation, what’s on the table, what amendments are possible and whether there’s an opportunity to advance some of the association’s priorities through that process, also keep lobbyists busy. “There’s always work to be done, someone that you could be talking to and either advancing our point or finding out what’s going on with another issue,” Brown said.

In order to stay up to the minute with what’s going on in the legislature, they read The Roll Call, The Hill and Politico. They call contacts and talk to other lobbyists and people on the Hill to gauge which way the winds are blowing.

The lobbyists also spend time talking with NAHB builder members and writing testimony prepping builders who fly in to Washington, D.C., to testify before Congress, as they did when more than 80 builders from across the country converged on Capitol Hill less than 24 hours after members of the 111th Congress were sworn into office, part of NAHB’s all-out grassroots effort to make housing a centerpiece of the economic stimulus package.

“You need your grassroots to support that effort. You need constituents to weigh in with the member of Congress and say, ‘This is important to me,’ because as much as Jim and I can go up there as lobbyists and say, ‘Hey, this is really important,’ if they don’t hear from constituents, you may not get as far because members of Congress care about their constituents and what helps their folks at home,” Brown said.

He expects the stimulus measure that eventually will come out of Congress and the Obama administration early this year likely will create some relief for the multifamily sector.

“Multifamily and commercial real estate tend to lag behind single-family in terms of where the market is, especially on the lending side, and that’s really ringing true right now. Single-family has been in the doldrums or in an outright recession for a year, and it’s only in the last six or eight months that commercial and multifamily started to feel the pinch. So, the credit crunch is not only a single-family phenomenon,” Brown said, explaining the focus on single-family and how benefits to that sector will trickle down to the rental sector of the residential industry and echoing what NAHB CEO Jerry Howard argues in a video on the association’s Web site home page.

“It’s the single largest component of the American economy, so when housing goes into recession, the entire economy goes into a recession and that’s been true in every economic downturn since World War II, that housing leads us in,” says Howard.

Likewise, a healthy housing market will lead the country out of the recession, Howard said, noting that it was the housing bust that caused declines in both the financial and manufacturing sectors, so it’s no surprise that the government’s efforts to fix those two sectors first didn’t work.

“So, you can’t right the ship globally without taking care of what’s going on with single-family. You just can’t. Multifamily won’t recover, commercial won’t recover and lending won’t get going again. That won’t happen until you deal with single-family because single-family, rightly or wrongly, is such a major part of investment portfolios of individuals, corporations, financial institutions and foreign governments,” said Brown.

Once the Obama administration’s stimulus package goes into action, it will take some time for the economy to get healthier and, after recovery is solidly under way, the new leadership will move on to other priorities like immigration, labor issues and wholesale housing finance reform. “NAHB does have policies and very strong opinions on the way we’d like to see the administration and Congress move on those issues,” Tobin said.