By: Dave Levinthal
June 12, 2012
Lobbyists and congressional staffers haunt the same corridors of power, but they don’t always speak the same language.
As they attempt to communicate, deliberate and share information, Congress and K Street are often wildly disconnected, with technology and age exacerbating matters, according to the results of the largest survey of its kind in U.S. history. POLITICO has an exclusive first look at the survey slated to be released Tuesday morning.
It turns out, Capitol Hill staffers don’t want to be bothered by all of the face-to-face meetings lobbyists set up and insist make a big difference for their clients. Staffers would rather connect by email but ironically find themselves stifled by increasingly antiquated BlackBerry devices.
And even when lobbyists and congressional staff successfully connect to chew over government initiatives and legislation, they routinely arrive with markedly different frames of reference, from the publications and briefing materials they read to the cable news they watch.
The survey, slated to be released in a 116-page document entitled The Congressional Communications Report, is a joint project by The George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, the Original U.S. Congress Handbook, Lobbyists.info and the Virginia-based market research firm ORI.
Nearly every lobbyist who responded to the survey said they wielded moderate influence over Congress and congressional staff, with almost four in five claiming to be fully influential or “very influential.”
While not even two in five congressional staffers agreed, more than one in five said lobbyists have little or no influence at all.
“Maybe this is a little more hubris in the lobbying community than there should be,” said David Rehr, the survey’s chief researcher and author of the study — a former Republican lobbyist who’s now an adjunct professor at GWU GSPM.
Lobbyists and congressional staffers, according to the survey, agree on this much: the importance of credible, reliable information as the basis for doing business.
For both parties, it ranked higher than any other single factor in determining access of any sort — both achieved and granted. It even trumped a person’s reputation or pre-existing relationships.
But how should that information be delivered and received?
The Holy Grail for lobbyists is scoring an in-person meeting with a congressman or a top congressional staffer — almost half described a sit-down as a “very effective” means of influencing policy.
“A meeting for lobbyists is almost an end [in] itself. Clients want meetings,” said Nicholas Lovesee, a survey researcher. “And lobbyists are trying to sell themselves to clients.”
Congressional staffers roundly disagreed, however, with only one-fifth of staffers saying the same.
Even visits by company chief executives or trade group honchos don’t make a significant impression on Hill staffers, with about one in 10 saying such visits are a “very effective” way to influence them.
“They’re so overwhelmed by what they’re doing and the amount of information they get that they’re trying to control their time,” said Rehr.
Instead, email is the preferred choice for congressional staffers — about three in four say so.
This may, in part, be attributable to age. More than half of the survey’s congressional staff respondents were 35 years old or younger, while just 17 percent of lobbyists said they were in the same age range. Not quite two-thirds of lobbyists identified themselves as being 46 years old or older.
“To be effective, lobbyists must realize that they’re dealing with a much younger audience that gathers information differently,” ORI Director of Strategy and Insight John Kagia said.
Herein lies a conundrum for lobbyists: Even if they begin conducting more business by Internet, there’s little guarantee that congressional staffers would entertain it.
That’s because of the 134 emails the average congressional staffer receives each day, and about one-fifth of staffers actually read half of those emails or fewer.
Want to game the odds?
Target the staff of freshmen, who are significantly more likely than their veteran counterparts to read every last email. Republican Hill staffers are also more likely than Democrats to read every one.
“The longer staffers and members are in their jobs, the less anxious they are to respond to constituents or messages,” Rehr said.
On a similar note, a minority of congressional staffers — 30 percent of Democrats and 25 percent of Republicans — say they almost always consult lobbyists when researching public policy issues.
That’s hardly good news for lobbyists, but consider this: The survey reveals that just 30 percent of Republicans and 25 percent of Democrats almost always consult their constituents when studying up.
There are some things that bring K Street and Capitol Hill together: POLITICO, for instance.
Among publications with a Capitol Hill focus, the survey indicated that POLITICO ranked first among both lobbyists (37 percent) and congressional staffers (28 percent), followed by Roll Call for staffers (17 percent) and The Washington Post for lobbyists (15 percent).
Not surprisingly, Republican congressional staffers expressed a preference for Fox News among cable news outlets, while Democratic staffers most often watched MSNBC. Lobbyists, for their part, displayed a light preference for CNN.
The bad news for media of all sorts: Both staffers and lobbyists consider political media to be extremely biased, with the vast majority saying there is “a lot” or “some” bias in news coverage. Just 5 percent of lobbyists and 2 percent of staffers said there is little or none.
The physical source of communication and information is another divide. More than 85 percent of Hill staffers still use the generally touch screen-free BlackBerry. Once the height of mobile technology, BlackBerrys are widely derided by iPhone and Android system-based users as passé and technologically inferior.
In contrast, more than three in five lobbyists have buried their BlackBerry. About 44 percent of lobbyists use iPhones; 16 percent use Android-based phones; and 4 percent use some other device, the survey says.
The practical implication, the survey coordinators say: Lobbyists with more sophisticated phones with high-end capabilities may be limited, particularly when sending digital files or graphic-laden presentations, by staffers’ old-school holdovers.
The digital divide also extends to the social media sphere, as lobbyists are much more likely to use Facebook, Twitter and LinkedIn for work than congressional staffers. LinkedIn is especially popular among lobbyists, with nearly two-thirds of respondents reporting using it — which is more than they use Facebook.
In all, 2,210 lobbyists and 716 congressional staffers completed surveys. The stated margin of error is plus or minus 3.6 percent for congressional staff and 2 percent for lobbyists.