Lobbyists, The Presidential candidates tell us, have become so powerful that they are destroying our democracy. This, of course, makes me want to become a lobbyist. As it turns out, the Afterschool Alliance, which asks the government to fund children's programs, invited me into its Leadership Circle. So I recently joined more than 500 program administrators, educators and policymakers from around the country to walk the halls of Congress and ask Representatives and Senators not to pass the cuts to the No Child Left Behind Act that President George W. Bush has proposed. Not knowing precisely how lobbying worked, I loaded myself up with $100 bills and all of Roget's terms for prostitute.
The Afterschool Alliance had a far better technique: tons of supercute poor kids. A day before we hit the offices of almost 200 congressional members, we sat through an afternoon of PowerPoint-filled workshops at the Grand Hyatt Washington hotel to learn lots of stats. These all seemed boring, so I suggested we dress the kids up like street urchins from a Dickens novel and give them dented tin cups.
When we walked into the Capitol, we were not the only ones lobbying. Members of the Alzheimer's Association, which had also been holding seminars at the Grand Hyatt, were walking around with Alzheimer's sashes around their chests, as if they had entered some pageant years ago and had forgotten to take them off. The hallways looked like the set of a Marx Brothers movie, with lobbyists running back and forth in their uniforms: pilots, veterans, real estate agents, guys from the egg producers making omelets.
I was assigned to lobby with the Afterschool Alliance delegation from Harris County, Texas, which consisted of 17 local education officials, 10 kids and a paid, professional political consultant. We walked into the office of Chet Edwards, a Democratic Congressman from Waco who declared himself completely on our side. That, however, did not stop the PowerPointed kids. "The peak time we do a lot of crimes is 3 to 6," said Maria Cruz, 11.
We headed to the office of Democratic Representative Sheila Jackson Lee, who talked about herself for two minutes, mentioned Alzheimer's and took a photo with the kids. The lobbying, it seemed, was up to me. I followed Jackson Lee as she went to a House vote and told her how super-awesome after-school programs are. She suggested I lay off the happy stories: "We only get moved by tragedy. " I regretted not pushing harder on the urchin look.
I left the kids behind and went to the office of Anna Eshoo, a Democrat from California. Several Alzheimer's people were waiting in front of her office, which was filled with photos of her posing with other Congressmen, which seemed about as impressive as if I had pictures of myself with the people who work on my office hallway. As I started lobbying, she interrupted, "Are you a registered lobbyist?" No, I said, I wasn't. "Then you're an advocate. Don't call yourself a lobbyist. Advocates volunteer. Lobbyists get paid." I still didn't understand the precise difference, but I knew I'd rather be a lobbyist.
I then met with Flip McConnaughey, chief of staff for Wyoming Senator Michael Enzi. I remembered from my training that with Republicans, I was supposed to stress crime prevention. McConnaughey said Wyoming didn't have a big gang problem. I told him it was possible that L.A. gangs could get wind of that market vacuum and send kids to carjack around Jackson Hole from 3 to 6. "You should stick to magazine work," he told me.
I met next with LaRochelle Young, a policy adviser for Kansas Republican Senator Sam Brownback. Knowing the Senator's antiabortion views, I told the aide that kids who go to after-school programs don't get abortions. Her eyes lit up, and she asked me for statistics. "One hundred percent," I said. This didn't seem like the right answer. So I tried 78%. She looked up from the pad she was writing on. "Whatever sounds good," I said. She stopped writing.
My last stop: Maine Republican Senator Olympia Snowe, who was receptive. I suggested she could get Brownback to join her on the Afterschool Caucuses--an official group of 81 Representatives and 36 Senators--by mumbling the word abortion and telling him there were free milk and cookies. I had known Brownback when he was running for President, and his campaign finances were pretty bare. "I'll find the best bakery in town," she said. "You gave me a good tip. That's good advocating."
Helping children and scoring Brownback food didn't give me the democracy-destroying rush I'd expected. In fact, I felt engaged with democracy. And more sure than ever that I don't want to be a member of Congress.