An outside shot of the Townsend Public Affairs Office in Newport (Photography by: Sienna Schoales) (Sienna Schoales)
An outside shot of the Townsend Public Affairs Office in Newport (Photography by: Sienna Schoales)

Sienna Schoales

Lobbyists: What Are They and What Should Young Voters Know?

As HBHS students grow closer to the voting age, it's important to understand an integral part of how laws are passed: lobbyism!

June 6, 2023

The idiom “you scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” is said to have originated from the British Navy in the eighteenth century. Sailors in charge of on-ship floggings would promise to only hit their crew-mates hard enough to leave a “scratch.” The exchanging of favors between one person to another that the idiom represents can also be attributed to how policies are passed in the United States. Lobbyists are individuals who work to convince officials of passing legislation on behalf of an organization that would benefit from the law being passed. Although lobbyists are known for their advocacy on behalf of corporations, they also represent labor unions and social movements. 

The Willow Project, which the Biden administration passed in March, was backed by the $8.7 million oil drilling company ConocoPhillips spent on lobbyists. The company doubled its spending on lobbyists to move Alaskan representatives Lisa Murkowski, Dan Sullivan, and Mary Peltola in their support of Willow. 10,550 federal lobbyists were hired by 10,933 groups in the first quarter of 2023, generating over one billion dollars. The U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which works to protect the interests of American companies, is the biggest spender of the year thus far—dropping $19 million to cover topics from taxes to the military budget. Half of Americans, 53%, find the power lobbyists have troubling as large corporations are able to dictate laws passed with the amount of money they have. Despite their image, the influence lobbyists have has been used for good in the past. Representatives from Mary Kay Inc. drove to Capitol Hill in pink Cadillacs and offered lobbyists upwards of $500 million to reinstate the Violence Against Women Act in 2005—President George W. Bush put the act into law months later. 

Even though brightly colored Cadillac brigades aren’t regularly seen around Huntington Beach, that doesn’t mean citizens aren’t impacted by lobbying on a daily basis. Huntington Beach has been represented by Townsend Public Affairs since 2015, hiring the firm for issues ranging from transportation, nuclear storage, and sober living homes. As seen in their quarterly filings, the city has regularly paid Townsend an average of $22,500 to lobby the Senate and House of Representatives on the Water Resources Development Act 2022. The act’s provisions are set to increase the city’s readiness for floods by analyzing trends in the winds and tide and to support environmental activists by creating the Tribal and Economically Disadvantaged Communities Advisory Committee. 

I had the privilege to interview a Huntington Beach City Council member, Councilwoman Rhonda Bolton, to get her thoughts on lobbyists in and outside of the city. 

A shot from the outside seating area of Townsend Public Affairs. (Photography by: Sienna Schoales)

In your eyes, what has been the greatest achievement of lobbyists working within Huntington Beach? 

Councilwoman Bolton said, “One of the issues I see lobbyists working on most frequently is land use.  As you may be aware, cities have authority over decisions about land uses within their borders, and they exercise this authority through their zoning codes. In this way, cities take responsibility for planning the layout of the city in a way that is safe, orderly, and to the benefit of residents. Important aspects of city planning include managing traffic and resources such as water, where to locate schools and retail centers, ensuring there is enough space for recreation, and planning where housing will go. Lobbyists for the various interests involved in these projects frequently interact with the city, along with residents, to reach consensus on whether a project should go forward or whether it needs to be modified to, for example, allow for efficient traffic management or to minimize impact on green spaces.”

Given your experience as a lobbyist in DC, what are the biggest misconceptions about the job? 

Prior to her work in Huntington Beach, Bolton worked at the Capitol as a lobbyist—with some of her work displayed in the notable Affordable Care Act of 2010.

In regards to this topic, Bolton said, “One of the biggest misconceptions has to do with who can be a lobbyist.  Anyone can lobby! The act of ‘lobbying’ consists of providing information to policymakers, perhaps trying to persuade policymakers that your view is the right one for the policymaker to adopt. This is a form of public participation in government, which, as you know, is an important characteristic of our democratic form of government. Congressional offices are open to the public and the public is welcome to  visit and talk to the Member of Congress or a staff member. So, all kinds of people come to policymakers to lobby; including students who are interested in a particular issue. One caveat: there are regulatory requirements that apply to people who get paid to be lobbyists. But aside from that,  if you’re simply coming into the office to discuss an issue with a policymaker, you’re lobbying!”

 Is there anything you could share about the city’s future projects with lobbyists? Is it anything that you can foresee changing the lives of young people?

“One of the most challenging things I think young people will face here in the city is the cost of housing. I recently read a report that said on average, a person/family needs an annual income of more than $170,000 to be able to qualify for a mortgage in California. Rental apartment prices are out of reach too for many families. As a result, I feel its one of our responsibilities as policymakers is to ensure, through our land use decisions, that the housing stock in the city includes housing at a variety of price points. Construction of affordable housing can happen if cities desire and prioritize it. This is something I am working on that I hope will benefit young people now and in the future,” said Bolton. 

The city has pushed towards convenient, affordable housing in the past. Examples can be seen in the mass apartment construction at Bella Terra. The average rent for a single-bedroom apartment in Huntington Beach has increased by 6% in the last year—rising to $2,350. Huntington Beach’s push for affordable housing continues, as its costly high price is detrimental for some looking for inexpensive housing in this Orange County area.

Is there any advice you could give to high schoolers who may be interested in politics and public relations? 

Bolton’s advice is, “If a career in politics interests you, there are many ways to achieve that goal. You don’t have to major in political science in college (although that is a good path; if you like political science, go for it!) the most important thing is to follow a path you are passionate about, because you will probably do your best work on something you enjoy.  If you become recognized among colleagues as being great at what you do, that is a good springboard into politics. You could decide to run for an elected office or seek a job on a policymaker’s staff. When I worked in Washington, I had colleagues who studied arts, science, engineering, economics (that was my major)–you name it–but we all came together through our interest in government and the political process.” 

Everyone may not like lobbyists, but the Townsend building captures sunlight very well. (Photography by: Sienna Schoales)

As Huntington Beach High School students reach voting age, they’re going to have different priorities at the forefront of their political lives. Lobbyists are a central part of how policies are passed, how candidates rise and fall, and how Americans’ lives change—like it or not. Looking at the future, the best thing a young person can do is stay informed to enrich the lives of their community and the “political process.” The “scratch my back and I’ll scratch yours” mentality remains, and each emerging voter is able to—hopefully someday—drive their own Cadillac of conviction into a future of collaboration and living safely within their means. 

Special thanks to Councilwoman Bolton, who took time out of her day to contribute to the article. 

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