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The Influence, Strategies, and Tactics of Green Lobbying

Updated on May 9, 2015
"Uscapitolindaylight" by Kevin McCoy. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons
"Uscapitolindaylight" by Kevin McCoy. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons | Source

For many years, the Environmentalist movement has been using lobbying in the United States congress to enact legislation that is favorable to their causes and goals. The movement, also known as the “Green Movement”, has tried to pass through laws known as “cap and trade” laws. The specific hallmark bill for cap and trade legislation is the American Clean Energy and Security Act. What is cap and trade? How did they pass these laws? In addition, looking at the other side of the coin, how did lobbyist for industries that are typically affected by environmentalist legislation react and deal with the passage of this law. In this paper, I will explain how the green movement lobbied for cap and trade laws to be enacted, and how lobbyists who are opposed to Cap-and-Trade have reacted.

The American Clean Energy and Security Act is a bill that was introduced to the House of Representatives on May 15, 2009 [US Library of Congress]. The bill sought to impose what is known as a “cap-and-trade” system on corporations. The cap-and-trade system is one in which the government puts a cap on the amount of carbon dioxide emissions that corporations can produce. The corporations are given “carbon credits”, which they can then trade to other companies if they have not used all of theirs. The bill passed through the House, but has since been stuck in the Senate for the last two years. The bill was supported by most of the Environmentalist and the Green industry, thus finding its supporters in congress to be the Democrat Party. Their arguments for the act were many. Paul Krugman makes the same argument that many in the green movement make. He claims that this act would be able to reduce the amount of carbon gases that the United States produces, while also allowing the country to lead by example with regards to convincing the rest of the world to go along with this plan. In addition, he also claims that the cost associated with the news laws and regulations that this act would impose would be largely unnoticed by the average citizen [Krugman]. Likewise, most industrial interest and energy producers found that the bill would hamper their operations, and were mostly represented by the Republican Party. Those against the act had their reasons too. The Wall Street Journal, in a report largely against the act, argues that “The hit to GDP is the real threat in this bill. The whole point of cap and trade is to hike the price of electricity and gas so that Americans will use less. These higher prices will show up not just in electricity bills or at the gas station but in every manufactured good, from food to cars” [The Wall Street Journal]. The point that the article is trying to make is that the act is a heavy handed measure that punishes the average citizen. Not only that, but the act, going by what the WSJ article articulated, would damage the cause of environmentalism by turning the public against it through the increased cost of living. In addition to protest that the act would devastate the economy, some environmentalists argue that the act is watered down in its ability to achieve any environmental change, yet it still lets industries such as the energy sector get carbon allowances for free until 2030 [Institute for policy studies].

Photo by Molgreen, edited by Andross Pope
Photo by Molgreen, edited by Andross Pope | Source

We should take some time to explorer briefly the subject of lobbying and what a lobbyist does. A Lobbyist, in a basic definition, attempts to influence a congressperson to vote favorably to the lobbyist’s interest. Sometimes, a lobbyist works for one particular entity. Likewise, a lobbyist might be a freelancer who will sell his or her services to the highest bidder. Regardless, the lobbyist is an agent of an interest who is sent to a legislative body to try to sway the votes of a particular politician. In the case of the American Clean Energy and Security Act, lobbyist represented groups on both sides. While this may sound easy, lobbying is more of an art than a science. An effective lobbyist has to get a working relationship with the legislators that they are targeting, and be able to appeal to that legislator. Some legislators will scoff at lobbyist who are Washington based with no connections to their constituency. Other legislators will work with them on a “you scratch my back, I scratch yours” basis. To work with this in mind, lobbyists have taken up new strategies to appeal to the legislators. For example, many lobbyists will offer information on a topic that may be out of a legislator’s area of expertise. Of course this information may be a little bit biased, but lobbyists have to be careful in this area. Lobbyists have many restrictions on their behavior, and these restrictions are both norms and rules (in this case, laws). For example, a green lobbyist would be arrested on the ground of bribery if he or she were to try and directly give the congressman a new electric car. Another example of bribery would be if a lobbyist were to purchase a meal for a congress man. These previous two examples demonstrate how laws bind the behavior of lobbyist, but there are norms too. These norms center around not betraying the trust of a congressman, or making him look foolish. Examples of this would include feeding congressmen false or mistaken information. Lying to a congressman defeats the very purpose of lobbying, and can destroy a lobbyist reputation, rendering him useless. Ultimately, lobbying is a profession that really centers on both honesty and trust. Now that the premise of Lobbying has been explained, it should be observed as to what types of interest are involved in lobbying the bill in question, as well as what their motives are.

The two movements for and against the bill are the environmentalist, mainly headed by the green products industry, and the oil, coal, and gas industries (along with other interest who rely on these products to conduct business, such as the aviation industry). The Green industry, which supported the bill, is a relatively new industry that has various interest and individual participants. The Green industry sprouted from the overall environmentalist movement. In efforts to raise public awareness of global warming, pollution, and overall destruction of the environment, some corporations and groups have begun selling products that are labeled as being environmentally friendly. Others have tried to produce and sell technologies that are also considered environmentally friendly, such as solar panels, wind mills, and electric (and gasoline/electric “Hybrid”) cars. According to Timothy Doyle, the Green industry and green lobbying in particular, are two components of the green movement that originated in and are somewhat unique to the United States. “Whereas in many parts of the world environmental movements involve themselves in mass mobilization tactics outside of the corridors of government and corporate power, mainstream U.S. green NGOs operate classically as lobby groups, indirectly influencing the policies of governments, administrators, diplomats, major parties, and corporations trough guaranteeing electoral support and by generating funds for party political campaigns. Ultimately, legislation and changes to administrative practices are sought to protect or ensure good management of the environment. Furthermore, any environmental networks which attempt to operate outside of accepted status quo practices are actively excluded from decision making, financial resources, and media access” [Doyle, 28]. Doyle also goes on to mention that the U.S. Green movement is closely intertwined with business and is exporting this corporate environmentalism to the rest of the world [30]. In some ways, the green industry is not all that different from any other industry. However, the directly compete and oppose some industries.

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The other side of the coin in the battle over the American Clean Energy and Security Act is that of the oil, coal, and gasoline based energy industries. These industries very existence, not to mention their bottom line, is threatened by pro-environmentalist legislation. It is claimed that the product these industries is producing is harmful to the environment in some way, and that they must be over time phased out. Those who are in favor of this have taken up the approach to use specially targeted tax increases to gradually put them out of business while at the same time supporting tax incentive for those who make “eco-friendly” decisions. The hallmark and base legislation for this was the cap-and-trade legislation as discussed above. The “dirty” energy industry, in anticipation for the “Clean Energy and Security Act”, began pumping large amounts of money into their lobbying arms. According to Suzanne Goldenburg of the Guardian newspaper, “America's oil, gas and coal industry has increased its lobbying budget by 50%, with key players spending $44.5m in the first three months of this year in an intense effort to cut off support for Barack Obama's plan to build a clean energy economy” [Guardian.co.uk]. Obviously, this is a matter that is important to the fate of their business. Most interests will consider lobbying an investment, or perhaps just part of the cost of doing (and staying in) business. This includes the cost of hiring lobbyist. Which brings up the question of how many lobbyists are there that was employed on this subject?

The amount of lobbyist overall have increased in recent years, and this is holding especially true for environmental lobbyist. According to Politico, more youth who are fresh from college have taken to lobbying as a way to influence policy [Politico]. Younger people are commonly more idealistic and are also typically more to the left on many issues. So it is no real surprise that youths are lobbying for the environmentalist cause. While most of these younger lobbyists are loyal to the Green movement, what about those who lobby for the interest that are against measures such as the American Clean Energy and Securities Act? According to the Center for Public Integrity, the number of lobbyist hired by interest against Cap-&-Trade has increased by 300 percent, when “more than 770 companies and interest groups hired an estimated 2,340 lobbyists…in the past year” [publicintegrity.org]. Why would so many lobbyists be employed by the anti-cap and trade interest? Mainly because it pays well. However, some of these lobbyists could also be idealists; helping to stop what they feel is a harmful piece of legislation. Evidence of this is the fact that the environmentalist group Greenpeace opposed the act as they felt that it was ineffective at stopping pollution and was far to compromised to support [Friends of the Earth]. Analyzing both sides numbers of lobbyist, we can infer that younger people are intentionally trying to affect policy using lobbying as a vehicle to make their mark. Secondly, this act is an important event that can shape the future of business practices in the United States, as well as the path and influence of environmental legislation. Even if many of lobbying efforts by all parties involved are failed attempts, when these efforts are viewed as a gestalt, it can create a powerful effect.

How did the lobbyist in favor of the act lobby though? Lobbyist in favor of the act used a multitude of strategies. In one documented case, a group of 22 lobbying groups (including the Sierra Club and the National Wildlife Federation) sent a letter to every member of the House [Samuelsohn]. The letter was an attempt to explain why this act was favorable to the United States and why we need it. However, according to Kingdon, these sorts of ploys usually fail, “Congressmen repeatedly said during the course of the interview that, unless an interest group had some connection with their constituencies, the group would have little or no influence on their decisions.” He continues on to give anecdotes about how congressmen rarely ever read the mail that lobbyist send them, and typically throw it away [Kingdon 150]. Going by what is described here, the lobbyist that pooled together to write this letter most likely wasted their time.

Another tactic that the pro-cap and trade lobbyist used was to place advertisements in Washington newspapers [Samuelsohn]. 20 different companies were behind this campaign, which might have been slightly more effective than the mass produced letter that was discussed above. However, as discussed by Kingdon, congressmen are mostly concerned with the wishes of their constituency [151]. Most Washington based lobbyists are of no real concern for congressmen, and play no actual part in their voting decisions because they have nothing to do with getting reelected. While this newspaper advertisement might have been effective if it had been placed in newspapers around the country, instead it was only placed in Washington based newspapers. It would have been an effective technique had it have targeted the constituencies, instead of the actual congressmen.

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Somewhat related to mass-mailings in order to create the appearance of a large demand for action (or inaction), another tactic that lobbyist use is to organize demonstrations. While demonstrations could be seen in the same way as mass-mailing campaigns, the difference is that congressmen can actually see the people who are demonstrating, whether or not those demonstrators are genuine. An example of this is the environmentalist group 1Sky’s demonstration in Washington D.C. to rally for the Senate to pass the Act through [Martin]. This demonstration may not have had much effect on the decisions of congressmen, as there was an assortment of them present as speakers. 1Sky had previously organized a mass-phone call campaign in 2009 [Mulkern]. A mass-phone call campaign is similar to demonstrations, but sometimes better because it needs concerned constituents to lobby their own legislator, thus being a more effective form of lobbying. Another tactic that was used by lobbyist is to have celebrities appeal to the public for their support in passing legislation. However, in the lobbying of the act, the only “celebrity” to be used as a lobbyist was Al Gore, who is already a leading figure and former politician [Moony][Hesters]. While related to a separate attempt to pass a different piece of climate legislation, The National Resource Defense Council Action Fund launched a campaign that used Hollywood actors such as Leonardo DiCaprio to appeal to lawmakers to pass the “Clean Energy Jobs and American Power Act” while also informing the public on how to call and email congressmen to vote in favor of the act [Zuckerman]. Having celebrities appeal to the public is a strategy that plays on the public’s adoration of these public figures, and the celebrity appeal is a tried and true marketing tactic. However, who could be considered a rising star in his own right behind the scenes?

Steve McBee is an influential lobbyist at the center of the green lobbying sector. According to his website he has had years of experience as a staffer for two different congress people in both chambers [mcbeestrategic.com]. According to the Washington Examiner, his clients in the green industry include “SolarCity and the Green Tech Action Fund as well as electric-car maker Better Place Inc., waste-to-power company Ze-gen, and solar-power developer BrightSource Energy. But the big guys -- Boeing, JP Morgan, and Google -- also hire McBee to lobby for green-energy subsidies” [Carney]. Through McBee’s clientele, we can see who is a part of the green industry interest groups. Likewise, we see that McBee is willing to sell his services to clients who are not strictly tied to the environmentalist dogma. While McBee and others of his ilk are actual lobbyist, there is a peculiar lobbyist that can also sign the legislation into law. That lobbyist is the Administrative branch of the United States government.

Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons | Source

How does the Administrative branch lobby for legislation? President’s, their staff, and the bureaucracy can be key players in lobbying efforts, both lobbying for legislation of their own accord, and also acting as proxies for lobbyist. President Obama did this in one way by appointing Carol Browner as his Climate Czar. Browner had been a notorious pain in the side of everyone involved in environmental legislation in the 1990’s, constantly arguing for stricter environmental standards. “Once thought of as an Al Gore protégé, Carol Browner is now President Obama's director of energy and climate change policy. The Assistant to the President for Energy and Climate Change was chief administrator for the Environmental Protection Agency from 1993 to 2001, serving longer than any other administrator. Browner spent time on the board of the Alliance for Climate Protection, Gore's climate campaign, as well as the Center for American Progress, a public policy research and advocacy group, before stepping down to join the Obama administration” [Halperin]. President Obama saw fit to appoint her as the Climate Czar in 2009, with her focus being on the cap-and-trade bill. She acted in a manner in which she worked with congressmen Markey and Waxman to craft the legislation in a way that was acceptable to the administration [Halperin]. Browner, along with President Obama and then chief of staff Rham Emanuel made phone calls to try and convince undecided Democrats, in fact “A presidential phone call helped to win at least one vote: Rep. Debbie Halvorson, D-Ill., a former state Senate colleague of Obama's, said in an interview Thursday evening she now "feels great" about the bill” [Tankersley, Oliphant]. On the idea of the President as a lobbyist, another way that President Obama lobbied for the act was to use political pressure. He accomplished this by authorizing the EPA to begin regulating carbon emissions [Broder] [AFP]. By going ahead and using his administrative powers, the President can use the threat of making congress look irrelevant and taking away a decision that they could claim as theirs. Congress also has an understanding that they must work with the president and his agencies, or else they risk jeopardizing future attempts at enacting legislation. Through his various powers, the president is able to pose a threat to congress and use that threat to force compromise with legislators. Having said that, was the president, or anyone lobbying for the act, successful?

Ultimately, we must ask the question of which lobbyist were the most successful. As recent history has shown, the act only passed in the House, and has not even been voted on in the Senate. Between the two ideological sides, it seems that the lobbyists that were coalesced against the act can claim a “tactical victory” in having stalled it. That doesn’t mean that the legislation is dead though; in fact, it could find itself dredged up again one day. In the 2010 midterm elections, the Republicans, a party that is mostly against the act, won in the House, yet this may have no effect, as the Democrats, by and large for the act, kept a firm hold on the Senate. With that said, the act would have a tough battle, as it would have to go through the House all over again; a tough feat seeing how narrowly it passed through the first time. Were the tactics used on both sides successful? Observing certain campaigns, one can notice that some of them are the types of tactics that are by and large ignored by congressmen. Yet, other strategies may have served to reinforce a congressman’s pre-determined decision. Ultimately, while political science can give a good idea of what generally influences congressmen, only each congressman can say for himself what struck a chord in his heart to sway their vote. Overall, from the perspective of an outside observer we can make deductions about what might have been effective. The majority of the tactics themselves were of what Kingdon described as essentially being throwaway ploys. The types of lobbying tactics that actually seemed to have some influence were those that involved getting the public involved, or trying to go through some form of an proxy (such as the president or his administration).

Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons
Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons | Source

In conclusion, the Green lobbyists were able to achieve a victory in the US House of Representatives, yet the bill was killed in the Senate. The bill may have been killed in the senate however, not because of lobbying, but because of political events that are beyond the scope of this report (an example of one of these events is how the political capitol of the Democrats was shifted to the intense battle over instituting a Universal Health Care system). Likewise, while much of the support of the act came from the Democrat party, many Democrats were fearful of the impact it would have in their local districts. Regardless of the outcome, the American Clean Energy and Security Act provided a good opportunity to study two lobbies, one of which is well established, and the other that is recent but powerful due largely to the support of philanthropists and entrepreneurs. In the future, this episode in the saga of environmentalism will serve as a learning experience that both sides will study for insight on lobbying future legislation.

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