Lobbyist in Action: How A Veteran Congressional Influencer Works Her Craft

Reference: OpenSecrets.org

August 27, 2010

By Summer Lollie

Anna Aurilio rushed into the Environment America office a few minutes past 10 a.m. on this summer day, visibly pressed for time, but in control of everything about her as she quickly gathered her staff and interns and got down to business.

Can you call his staff to see where he is on this bill?” Aurilio, director of Environment America’s Washington office, asked an intern as she attempted to decipher concerns of House of Representatives’ members wavering on a bill of utmost environmental lobby importance — the Consolidated Land, Energy, and Aquatic Resources Act of 2009, otherwise known as the CLEAR Act (H.R. 3534).

Firm knowledge of congressional members. Understanding of their districts. Near-clairvoyance for their concerns. These are the elements needed to become a successful environmental lobbyist. And for half a day in July, OpenSecrets Blog had unfettered access to an environmental lobbying force in action.

As Aurilio and her staff paged through the 111th congressional directory, a handy book that comes with the pictures of lawmakers and description of their districts, it became obvious they knew their targets well.

“We have a rating system from one to five,” Aurilio (pictured right) explained. “One is for the congressmen very likely to vote ‘yes,’ three being those who could go either way, and five for congressmen, like the representatives in Texas, most likely to vote ‘no.’”

Aurilio was slightly poking fun at the reporter shadowing her — a Texan — and partly referencing the heavy ties to the oil and gas industry that most representatives in Texas have.

John Mimikakis, senior policy manager (a fancy phrase for “lobbyist”) at theEnvironmental Defense Fund, reinforced the notion that one must know the lawmaker, his district and his concerns to be successful at lobbying, in a separate interview conducted in anticipation of this OpenSecrets Blog reporter’s shadowing expedition.

“I spend most of my time on Capitol Hill talking with the staff and members to understand what their concerns are, what they are hearing — basically trying to understand the lay of the land because it changes from minute-to-minute,” Mimikakis said.

As Aurilio and her team of activists discussed possible obstacles to congressmen rated “2,” “3″ and, occasionally, “4″ voting “yes” on the CLEAR Act, Aurilio quickly doled out the task of calling members’ offices. She made certain to match staff members at Environment America to the congressional offices that they have already worked with, have a home state or regional connection with or know personally.

Shortly afterward, the meeting ended. Aurilio stood up and turned to her interns.

“Who’s going to the Hill with me?” she asked.

The CLEAR Act is a bill designed to strengthen regulation and oversight of the oil and gas industry, hold BP accountable for the costs of the April 20 Deepwater Horizon oil rig explosion and enact stronger safeguards for oil rig safety, spill prevention and response. It was slated to be voted on the House floor an hour after Environment America concluded its meeting.

Two Environment America interns, an Environment America fellow and this OpenSecrets Blog reporter left the Environment America office, conveniently located a few blocks from Capitol Hill, and followed Aurilio to the House side of the U.S. Capitol Building. They waited under a tree for members of the House to arrive for the vote.

“We are trying to catch members as they walk from the House office building to the House floor, so that I can talk to them before the vote,” Aurilio explained.

As the group waited under the tree waiting for the House bells to sound, beckoning members of the House to the chamber floor, other lobbyists from other environmental groups joined us — lobbyists from EDF, Sierra ClubSouthern Environmental Law CenterEarthjustice and the League of Conservation Voters.

The group of environmental lobbyists representing different environmental organizations all seemed to know each other. Eventually, the lobbyists began unpacking jointly produced flyers be handed to members of the House, suggesting that these environmental groups often work closely together.

The flyer provided a list of 18 environmental groups supporting the CLEAR Act, including the Conservation Law Society, Defenders of WildlifeLand Trust Alliance,National Audubon AssociationNational Wildlife Federation and National Parks Conservation Association, as well as the environmental groups waiting outside of the House floor. Picturing the Deepwater Horizon rig burning up, the flyer urged the members to “Vote ‘Yes’ to pass the Clear Act, H.R. 3534″ and “vote ‘No’ on a motion to recommit.”

As the lobbyists waited for members of the House to walk by, they exchanged notes on what they knew about the way particular members were going to vote. While this was going on, this reporter, absentmindedly, began swigging from a plastic Aquafina bottle of water I had purchased at breakfast, initially oblivious to the awkward stares a group of interns cast my way. “Stupid. Stupid. Stupid. Where is my Nalgene?” I sheepishly chided myself for my when-in-Rome moment. I must have forgotten that I was shadowing environmentalists.

In order to quickly get through the awkward moment, I, perhaps lamely, remarked to Aurilio that I did not see any oil and gas lobbyists.

“They don’t usually stand out here,” Aurilio said.

Maybe they don’t have to.

“The oil and gas industry has a lot of influence in Washington,” Mimikakis had toldOpenSecrets Blog. “They have a lot access, when they attend fund-raisers and write checks, they are able to spend more time with members of congress and their staff and develop the kind of relationships that means that when you come back to talk about policy concerns they know who you are.”

Kyle Ash, senior legislative representative of Greenpeace, expressed similar views in another separate interview: “It is impossible to compete with the oil and gas money influence. We are funded by public resources, by donations from people who care for the environment, whereas they are funded from the profits, and on top of it, they are subsidized. We are not.”

In 2009, the oil and gas industry spent more than $175 million lobbying federal lawmakers and officials, almost eight times the $22 million that the environmental interest area spent on lobbying in 2009. During the 2008 election cycle, the people and political action committees associated with the oil and gas industry contributedmore than $35 million to federal candidates and parties, about six times the $5.5 million that the environmental industry contributed.

As Mimikakis had said: “Our challenge in the environmental community is to try to find ways to develop relationships with staff and members on the Hill without having that same kind of natural access that money gets you when you can attend fund-raisers.”

“We have public opinion on our side,” Aurilio assured OpenSecrets Blog. “The public wants a clean environment. They want alternative energy. And congressmen know that.”

As members started to arrive at the House floor, the lobbyists quickly dispersed, working almost as a cohesive unit, targeting members who were potential swing votes on the bill.

In the 60 yards between the lobbyists’ camp under the tree and the House floor, the lobbyists had to identify members by face. They had to place their flyer in congressmen’s hands. And they had to flaunt a working knowledge of members’ constituencies so that they could throw a quick last minute pitch on why the CLEAR Act was worth supporting.

It was clear on this day that that Aurilio, after 17 years lobbying congressmen, is an expert at recognizing lawmakers and getting them to talk to her. She was able to secure several congressmen’s words that they would, indeed, vote “yes” on the CLEAR Act.

“You have to show that you are valuable to them,” Mimikakis had said. “You provide information that they can’t find anywhere else. Or that you are helpful in sending a message to voters back home that they care about the environment.”

Aurilio’s experience and mettle has centainly been valuable to her employer.

Charlie Gonzalez just told me I was one of the only constants in his life,” Aurilio said, beaming after chatting with the veteran Democratic congressman from Texas on the way back to his office after the vote.

Gonzalez (D-Texas) was one of the many congressmen who Aurilio was able to stop and chat with. It seems as if Aurilio’s years of environmental lobbying enabled her to have friendly working relationships with several congressmen.

OpenSecrets Blog witnessed Aurilio talk with, joke with and even take a picture with lawmakers as she tried to talk to them about the CLEAR Act and other upcoming climate legislation.

In the end, the CLEAR Act passed the House in a 209-193 vote. Only two Republicans voted “yes” on the bill, Reps. Vernon Ehlers (R-Mich.) and Timothy Johnson (R- Ill.). Gonzalez ultimately joined 39 other Democrats and voted “no” on the bill.

“Capitol Hill is a very human institution. People who work there really are people,” Mimikakis  had earlier pointed out. “Lobbying is the same kind of thing that people deal with every day of their lives with their neighbors, with their bosses, or someone you are working with on a project. It’s actually the same kind of interaction you have with a lot of people everyday no matter what you do.”