Live Chat with Lobbyist: Liz Robbins
- Grades: 3–5, 6–8
The following transcript is from a Democracy Month live interview with Liz Robbins, a lobbyist in Washington, DC. The discussion was held October 14, 1994, and continues to be relevant to the study of the US government.
Corddry: Tell us about the Theater for the Deaf.
Liz Robbins: NTD (National Theater for the Deaf) is group in Chester, CT that has won multiple awards (Tony, etc). They have both deaf and hearing actors, plus a traveling little theater which goes to elementary schools. They are funded through the Dept. of Ed, primarily. We are working with them to expand their funding base.
KMFisher: How did you get interested in working in your field? And working with the Deaf?
Liz Robbins: I started out working in social services (like foster care, AFDC) for the City of New York and found that so many issues were federal in nature that I spent more and more time traveling to Washington. I then worked on a Senate Committee and for the Dept. of Education so I would have experience in state and local, congressional, and administrative levels of government.
KMFisher: Tell us about the difference between lobbying for Wall Street and the education institutes.
Liz Robbins: Of course the issues are very different. In addition, the techniques differ also. Our work with Wall Street concentrates on programs for local governments and so we can utilize advocates (like mayors, governors) from many states. Specific educational institutions (like NTD) are only in one state and their congressional support is more confined. So you have to be creative to broaden support and interest in their issues.
KMFisher: Let's say a student is interested in being a lobbyist when she grows up. Have any pointers?
Liz Robbins: You need to get involved at the local level: your school student council, your county government, work on an election campaign, and get experience in how people work together to accommodate many different interests.
Corddry: I have heard that the use of lobbyists in government is waning. Is this true?
Liz Robbins: No corddry, it certainly is not, nor do I think it ever will. Accomplishing things in Washington, like any important effort, takes time and experience, many times people in business or at schools don't have the time to devote to the effort. After all, if your pipe breaks, you could fix it yourself, but you'd likely just call a plumber!
KMFisher: Are there many female lobbyists?
Liz Robbins: I opened the first Woman-headed lobbying firm in Washington. The first famous woman lobbyist was Evelyn Dubrow, who still works for the Garment Workers Union. Even now, though there are many more women in the field, woman-headed firms are few. I know of five or six.
Lexapj: Can you tell us how you were drawn to work/lobby for a particular group?
Liz Robbins: I wanted to be a lobbyist to help people and solve problems. So many needs at the local or school level can be addressed through federal programs, but often the programs need to be fixed to better match the real needs that people have. That's what I wanted to do, make things better, and why I started working as a lobbyist.
KMFisher: Do you really yell a lot when you're at work like the Wall Streeters do.
Liz Robbins: You can't yell at people and expect them to like you and want to do things that you ask.
Lexapj: How many clients/cases can you handle at once?
Liz Robbins: It depends on how complicated the issue is, how difficult it is, many things. Sometimes we have to hire additional lobbyists. Usually, though, we just keep working longer hours. This is not a nine-to-five job! We work at night and on weekends quite a lot.
JoyVB: Do you ever work/negotiate directly with lobbyists "on opposite sides of the fence."
Liz Robbins: Joy, good question. Sometimes we try to propose a way that we can get what we want and they can get what they want, or at least, avoid problems we could cause for them by "causing a fuss" and opposing them strongly. Often, though, the member of Congress tries to make both sides sit down and "knocks heads" to see if the two sides can reach agreement.
Lexapj: So, it's a lot of "let's make a deal."
Lexapj: Do you have to be passionate about your cause, or is it more just rote after a while?
KMFisher: On average, how much do Lobbyists make?
Liz Robbins: It depends. Some lobbyists work for "public interest" groups, like the Wildlife Federation. They make less. Some lobbyists work for corporations as an employee. Some are in their own firm. It can be anywhere from a little to, for a few very successful lobbyists, a lot.
Lexapj: Have you ever had occasion to go "head-to-head" with Bill or Al? Or are you mostly on the congressional level?
Liz Robbins: I first met President Clinton when he was governor of Arkansas, and admire him and Mrs. Clinton tremendously. Likewise, I've known the Vice President since he was a congressman. I don't go "head to head" with them to oppose what they might want to do, because I support them. Also I would tend to agree with their policies. However, we do try to persuade people in the administration to take an interest in issues we are working on.
KMFisher: Was there ever a time that you changed your mind about a cause?
Liz Robbins: We think we're a special firm in that we won't take issues we don't agree with (and only take those that we feel) are the right cause or the right position. We have not taken clients because we didn't agree with what they wanted. Since we think carefully about it before we take a client or issue, no I can't say that I've ever found myself in that position, though I've changed my personal opinion on broader political issues before, like most people.
Lexapj: Do you feel you're making a difference for the country? Is that why you became a lobbyist?
KMFisher: We have to go. We're sorry but we enjoyed our conversation.
Liz Robbins: I think we make a difference for parts of the country. We worked on health care reform for a big union, the movie screenwriters, and on other issues that affect many people, and we are happy that our successes have improved things in many cases.
JoyVB: Some say lobbyists have too much power. How would it change the democratic process if there were none?
Lexapj: We have tried to think about how we could make our world, our country better by being unselfish in our choices of profession. The Bill of Rights offers so much opportunity to do good, and kids want to have an impact on the futures of their children. Does that make sense? Passion in a job and doing good?
Liz Robbins: Without the Bill of Rights, there would be no lobbyists. It's the ability to petition the government that lobbyists are using in their job. Passion does matter. People who don't care about the issues they work on get cynical and I think, aren't as successful. Which relates to Joy's question. I can't image a democracy without lobbyists. Remember, when you write your congressman, or petition the city council to block a new sewer site one block from your school, you are lobbying. There were lobbyists at the founding of our country; the Bill of Rights was a result of lobbying! The only difference is, we do it full time as our job.
JoyVB: From your experience on the Hill, would you say that letters, etc. from students are influential?
Liz Robbins: Yes if they are individually written (not a mass mailing of the same letter signed by different people), thoughtful, and sent to the right person! Always write your local member of Congress or Senator, if you write a famous Senator from another state, she or he will just forward it on to your representative.
Lexapj: How about assembling in a rebellious fashion outside the Senator's house? Is it better to go through a lobbyist, or will an extreme act be better heard because of the media?
Liz Robbins: Well, you don't always need to hire a lobbyist if you can devote a lot of time to your effort. However, representatives are regular people, too. Its always better to start by nicely trying to show someone why your interest are reasonable and hopefully, help them too. Yelling or demonstrating outside their house will make them mad, and usually that's not a good outcome. However, using the media can be an important tool, but it must be done very carefully.
Corddry: Thank you this has been very informative, but I must sign off. I am going to write to my congressman.
Lexapj: Thank you. How has your job been affected by the influence of the mass-media? Do you use them, or are you forced to work against them?
Liz Robbins: A lot of what we work on is too narrow and technical to attract media attention. However, there are times when we have used a media campaign. Sometimes a story in a major newspaper can bring attention to an issue when nothing else will. Other times, the media gets it wrong, and one must explain over and over, why the story is wrong. So, I've had experience with both.
Liz Robbins: I must say, however, that the level of personal attention that the media plays, in a negative way, emphasizing negative stories, has changed the climate of Washington and the country. I wonder if Franklin Roosevelt would have been reelected so many times if he had the kind of modern media attention we see now. Do you realize that press photos of the time never showed him in a wheelchair? That would never happen now. Do you think that's good or bad?
Lexapj: We have a lot of answers for that one, hold on...
Lexapj: One thinks it was good because he was such a good president that his image might have been needlessly tarnished in a way that would have drawn attention to the wrong thing. Others say that it was bad because we need to know all we can about elected officials. Let us make our own conclusions.
Liz Robbins: That's a good point. The emphasis on negative stories makes citizens think nothing is going right in Washington, and since they're not here, they don't have the information to make their own judgment. It's true citizens need full information. However, was the fact that he was in a wheelchair important to whether or not his policies were good or bad? I think not.
JoyVB: I think FDR would have served as a good role model for disabled kids and adults.
JoyVB: Some Congress members must really agonize over certain votes, and the media doesn't show that either.
Liz Robbins: I know many Members of Congress as friends, and I can confirm that many times they absolutely agonize over votes, and take their jobs very seriously. Being a Member or Senator is a very time-consuming, high stress job.
Lexapj: Got to go folks. Thank you so much. Some of us may see you on the Hill! Bye
JoyVB: Liz and Sharon, thanks so much! This was a good "interview." Liz, you had some great answers for the kids! Inspiring!
Liz Robbins: Bye, and thanks.