The 2019 legislative session is in full swing and those familiar with the process know the environment in “The Building” is hectic at best.
Having served in the building for eight years as a state senator, I can say without reservation that the work environment is extremely intense. Three thousand bills will be introduced and thousands of people will be sending email, making calls, and stopping by each legislator’s office, attempting to exert influence on those bills.
In addition to the general public, each legislator is also being lobbied by their fellow legislators both in their own institution (the House or Senate), and in the countervailing one as well. They will get calls from the heads of government, business, labor, and community organizations — each pressing upon them to “vote yes or vote no”, or “amend the bill” this way or that.
So how do legislators deal with drinking from this fire-hose? How do they manage their time and prioritize their telephone and meeting availability?
If advocates want to “reach” a certain legislator with their message, who is the best person to carry that message?
While some manage their own schedules, most legislators utilize staff to guard the gates of entrance and access. For both, there is a “hierarchy of access and influence” that governs who gets called back first, who can just “walk right in” without an appointment and who perhaps gets ignored completely.
The below, is a fairly typical representation (written from my perspective) of the filter many/most legislators use to prioritize access to their limited time and bandwidth.
Hierarchy of access and political influence (outside the building):
1) Family — You can be sure that when my mother calls, I will take that call. Likewise if my wife, daughter, or son calls or stops by the office — I will normally step out of a meeting, stop what I am doing, and speak with them. If my dad calls, I know it must be serious as he never ever calls. I am not being facetious. If there was a bill that was near and dear to a close family member’s heart, you can be sure that I would pay the utmost attention to it, and do whatever I could to support that measure. To be clear, I would not violate my core principles and would not go to jail to please a family member or friend, but yes absolutely I would do what I could to make my mom and dad and children (and now grandchildren) happy.
2) Friends/Campaign Volunteers — Without question I will take the calls and try to help other friends and volunteers who have stood out in the hot sun holding signs for days on end, to help me get elected. There are people who as volunteers have given up weeks and months of their lives to help me, and you can bet I am deeply and personally indebted to them. Yes, I would want to help them and yes of course they can call or come in to see me anytime whatsoever. But as is the case with family, any help that I offer will never violate my core values and principles.
3) The Media — They can help you or hurt you and it is always best to get back with them as soon as possible. If they call you, it is likely because either you are doing something good, or something bad. In either case the sooner you deal with it the better.
4) Voters/Constituents that live in your district — These are the core group of people who at the end of the day determine whether or not you can continue to serve in public office – they vote. When a constituent calls or stops by the office, it behooves the legislator to pay attention. Constituent service is everything. Every politicians bad dream revolves around a constituent writing a letter to the editor complaining about how the politician didn’t call them back, was not supportive, or otherwise blew them off.
5) Advocacy Groups (labor unions, environmental, etc) – Advocacy groups normally have influence over elections, and they have a legitimate voice representing large constituency groups. These groups often are also “subject matter experts” on issues that impact their subject matter interests.
6) Non Voters In District – They don’t vote, but they might write letters to the editor and or talk to friends and neighbors.
7) Voters In Other Hawaii Districts – Unless the legislator is seeking higher office, these voters don’t carry a lot of weight nor do they deserve a lot of time or energy. The refrain “I am never going to vote for you!” coming from someone who does not live in your district, means nothing.
8) People outside Hawaii — Unless they represent large advocacy organization or are campaign donors, the testimony from these folks is funneled always to the circular file (metaphorically speaking).
Hierarchy of access and political influence (inside the building)
1) The Chair of the House and/or Senate “money committee” (Finance or Ways and Means) – Just about everything any legislator wants to do costs money, and the “money chairs” essentially control that flow. Further, rarely do they ever come to see you but rather you are the one seeking to connect with them — so when they come calling it behooves you to be there and available.
2) The Senate President or the House Speaker — When they come calling, it is usually to provide guidance (please appreciate the nuance here). Usually the guidance will be to encourage (yes, more nuance) you to vote a certain way, hear a certain bill (or not), and to pass, kill, or amend a certain bill in a manner that serves the majority caucus (which may or may not align with your interests and or the broader public interest). Both the President and the Speaker hold their positions due to the support of “the majority” and thus they theoretically speak for the majority. So yes, these two individuals generally rank pretty high on the hierarchy of access and influence.
3) Various Committee Chairs — If a committee chair wants to see you it is either because they want something from you, or you are asking them for something, and they are ready to talk.
4) Legislators from your “faction” — Generally speaking these folks are your friends and either seek camaraderie, wish to give you a “heads up” on something happening in the building, or seek your support and help.
5) Legislators from outside your “faction” – Generally speaking these folks are not your friends, but may not be your enemies, but will act like your friends. They will be seeking “intel”, and/or trying to enroll your support.
6) Staff – While they do not hold the same status as the other power brokers, every legislator wants their staff to think of them as “a good guy” (gender neutral intended). Thus staff also have significant influence but not overtly and such influence must be far more nuanced – a staff member will never tell a legislator how to vote, etc.
A brief note on leverage:
No one listed above on the hierarchy of access and influence from “inside the building” will normally call, visit, or broach a conversation with a fellow legislator unless they want something. Yes, of course I exaggerate – but not really. People in the building are BUSY and the pace and mood is frenetic. The clock is always ticking and there is always a deadline that needs to be met or some bill is going to die.
So except for a small circles of friends, the vast majority of times that a legislator will reach out to another legislator is when they want something. They want a bill heard or they want your vote, or they want support for something that is important to them.
Legislators quickly learn that when this happens, there is an opportunity for “leverage.” “Sure” they will likely respond, “I will give you this, but by the way, I need your help on this other thing too.”
Call it horse trading, call it leverage, or call it politics as usual. It is the way of the world — in the building. People are busy, and they are trying to get stuff done.
Gary Hooser formerly served in the state Senate, where he was majority leader. He also served for eight years on the Kauai County Council and was former director of the state Office of Environmental Quality Control. He serves presently in a volunteer capacity as board president of the Hawaii Alliance for Progressive Action (HAPA) and is executive director of the Pono Hawaii Initiative.