February 17, 2012

ABRAMOFF: Deploying the Grassroots Army to Battle Laws You Don’t Like

Capitol buildingI believe President Obama’s proposed tax hikes — including the massive “bank tax” — are a prescription for economic calamity. But I do understand that the “tax the rich” frenzy finds resonance with many Americans. Throughout history, banks — and bankers, in particular — have been identified with the worst elements of societal greed. They make easy targets, especially these days. Which is why passage of the $61 billion tax increase on the banks should be a piece of cake, right?


Snatching bailout money has not been the only success of banking lobbyists. They have also managed to defeat other tax assaults throughout the past few years. And, in a stunningly candid boast, their top lobbyist, James Ballentine, executive vice president of the American Bankers Association, feels they’ll have no problem dispatching the tax-raising effort yet again.

“It’s been a nonstarter the last couple years. I don’t expect there to be any movement by Congress to bring this up. If there is, we’ll employ grassroots as necessary and go from there. We can only go on the history of how it’s been received and it’s not been received well,” he said. “If we get some sense of movement, we will act accordingly. We don’t plan to do anything aggressive at this point.”

Perhaps no one mentioned to Mr. Ballentine that the deployment of grassroots pressure by lobbying firms is usually best kept quiet.

When Congressmen suspect that the citizen-armies in their districts are being whipped up by lobbyists, they usually ignore them. Robo-calls, form letters, blast emails, and other grassroots devices are quickly detected by argus-eyed Congressional staff, and discounted as meaningless. That a seasoned veteran like Mr. Ballentine would feel confident enough to discuss this weapon in his arsenal with such candor is refreshing, if not unwise. I certainly was less open to such discussion when I was a lobbyist.

In my former job, when confronted with a vexing lobbying challenge, I would organize and deploy grassroots activists to whip up a firestorm against our opponents. Every lobbyist dreams of replicating the legendary shutdown of the Capitol achieved by the homeschooling movement in the 1990s after the Clinton Administration threatened their movement.
Some issues lend themselves to grassroots campaigns – homeschooling works well — but others require contrivance and connivance to whip up support. Often, lobbyists will hire vendors to dispatch blast emails and robocalls in the hopes of bombarding Congressional offices with citizen fury. But, it’s tough to buy a crowd. And their calls are usually not very heartfelt.

When I lobbied for Tyco Corporation, we were faced with a problem somewhat similar to that which Mr. Ballentine confronts. The House and Senate had separately passed tax bills which retroactively placed a multi-billion dollar levy on my client. We had to scramble to remove these provisions in conference, and decided on a good-cop, bad-cop approach. In Washington, we plied our congressional targets, including Senators Chuck Grassley (R-IA), Craig Thomas (R-WY), Bill Frist (R-TN), Jim Bunning (R-KY), Tom Daschle (D-SD), John Breaux (D-LA) and Blanche Lincoln (D-AS), with all manner of contributions and largesse (in other words, bribes!) and in their states and districts we tried to turn on the grassroots machine. We would quantify for the Senators how many jobs the company provided in the state, the impact of Tyco companies on state commerce, how many vendors were in the state and even how many shares of Tyco stock were owned by citizens of the state.

But we found it impossible to entice employees to pick up a phone to call their congressmen.

Moreover, even were we able to get the line foreman, riveter, secretary, or storage clerk to call a congressman, they usually were impassive advocates at best. Most workers in a company don’t view it as their job to lobby for their company. So, Ballentine’s legion of bank-tellers, account reps, and armored car drivers might not be the most effective army in this battle. Even were his grassroots consultants able to rally customers who fear an increase in bank fees, how many would take their time to call Washington in defense of an institution they likely loathe?

In the Tyco effort, I found that getting the employees or customers of Tyco’s myriad subsidiaries to take up their cudgels was a futile effort, so I took a different tack: I went for the vendors. Based on my experience raising political armies to assist my Indian tribal gaming clients, I knew that vendors are the most highly motivated defense force out there. If you were selling Tyco reams of paper each year, or tons of computers, or even oodles of noodles, you didn’t want to lose that contract. If you were head of the company providing janitorial services, or doing renovations or a million other things, you were going to take the time to pick up a phone and call a Congressman. And that call was not going to be some unfocused persiflage. You were going to laser in with strong talking points and focused passion.

These were the calls worth a million robo-calls.

Once my bewildered client acquiesced and gave me the list of the thousands of vendors of the hundreds of companies they owned, I had my army. We facilitated the calls from these business owners and watched with glee as our previously stubborn opponents tripped over themselves to support our position. We won the battle for our client. I, of course, ultimately lost the war.

I don’t know if the American Bankers Association grassroots effort is anything more than a fig leaf. It’s likely they are paying consultants a fortune to turn out the feckless robo-calls and form letters, rather than doing the kind of work we did. Probably, the grassroots threat by Mr. Ballentine is just cover, while the banks ply Congress with the main product they keep in their warehouses: money.