Working for You
WECA Government Relations Director Beata Kalies recently delivered a guest lecture at a UW-Milwaukee graduate seminar, describing the work of co-op lobbyists and the principles that guide them. The following is a guest column based on her insights.
We’re no likelier to see a headline reading “Lobbyist Honors Ethics Rules” than we are to read: “Flight Lands Safely, Passengers Enjoying Vacation.” Neither is newsworthy, which tells us something about both aviation safety and the profession of lobbying.
High-profile Washington, D.C. scandals over recent decades have given many people a low opinion of lobbyists and their work. Contrary to the reputation that some deserve, that work has less to do with stalking the halls of Congress with bags of cash than with walking those halls with bundles of information.
A unique disadvantage for legislators is that, like all of us, they know what they knew before they were elected—plumbing, the law, teaching English Literature—but they’re now expected to function as experts in every field. That’s impossible, but an honest lobbyist can be valuable to lawmakers and their constituents.
Sorting Out the Details
It’s common for well-intentioned legislation to cause collateral damage. A principled lobbyist will sift the details and point out pitfalls, so that what somebody thought was a nice idea won’t produce the opposite of the intended result or subject others to burdensome costs.
One example is the Department of Energy water heater efficiency standard discussed elsewhere in this edition. Its apparent goal is energy conservation, which we all support. But its practical effect is to disable one of the nation’s most successful energy conservation programs, “demand reduction” practiced by electric cooperatives using their members’ large-capacity water heaters to shift electricity usage to off-peak hours.
The program is credited with delaying the need for at least two full-sized power plants, but only special legislation can prevent the department’s efficiency standard from ending production of the crucial water heaters. Without the efforts of co-op lobbyists, this conservation program would be doomed.
Principled lobbying isn’t limited to opposing ill-advised laws or regulations; sometimes it involves highlighting a need for government action.
A state-level example is the multi-year push for uniform statewide licensing of electricians. Under past Wisconsin law, only a few municipalities had any licensing standards. Elsewhere, anyone could offer to perform electrical wiring with no requirement to receive training or demonstrate competence.
Safety concerns aside, competent but unlicensed Wisconsin electricians were disadvantaged, unable to work across state lines. Over several years, electric co-op lobbyists earned legislative backing for training and testing requirements, and implementing rules are being developed.
An Honorable Profession
Positions advocated by co-op lobbyists are directed by policy resolutions originating with co-op members and requiring majority approval at successive levels of co-op governance. Similar assurances don’t necessarily apply in other segments of the lobbying corps, but a lawmaker asked by a co-op lobbyist to support or oppose something can be confident the request has passed muster at the grassroots.
And you can be confident that if—for instance—the water heater issue is resolved to protect co-op conservation programs, it’s because Members of Congress paid attention not to the checks we might deliver, but to the voices of their constituents, delivered by co-op lobbyists.—Beata Kalies