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Learning the Finer Points of Lobbying

On a recent Saturday morning, about two dozen individuals gathered in the Capitol’s Mansfield Room to argue the relative merits of the Central America Free Trade Agreement and the “Clear Skies” environmental initiative.

They hailed from places as varied as Berlin, Germany, and St. Paul, Minn., and came armed with PowerPoint presentations and, in some instances, a mild case of nerves.

Their goal that day: to persuade a panel of academics, Hill aides and lobbyists to see the issues their way.

But the debaters weren’t professional lobbyists or foreign officials on a diplomatic mission. Rather, they were students of American University’s Public Affairs and Advocacy Institute — informally known as the “Lobbying Institute” — and they were giving their final presentations following an intensive, two-week immersion in the world of K Street.

“The work these young people have done was as good as any of the professionals I’ve seen around town,” gushed Mike Berman, president of the Duberstein Group who serves as a mentor and, during the Capitol event, a judge. “It’s fun to watch them dive in,” he said.

Berman is but one of a who’s who of top-notch lobbyists who have lent their time and expertise to the institute. Over the years, students have been taught by everyone from Citigroup’s Nick Calio (a veteran of the current Bush White House) to Time Warner’s Susan Brophy (a veteran of the Clinton White House). This past session, none other than legendary rainmaker Thomas Boggs invited the students to his office for an afternoon of discussing “practices and principles” of lobbying.

“This is like the Parris Island boot camp” — that is, basic training for new Marines, said James Thurber, director of the Center for Congressional and Presidential Studies, under whose auspices the institute operates. “I tell them your whole life is going to change as a result of this.”

For the past 10 years, the institute has provided ambitious students and mid-career professionals with a crash course in lobbying.

Pat Griffin, the institute’s longtime academic director who is now on leave to work as a senior adviser to Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), said that as lobbying has evolved over the years, academic interest in the profession has acquired new importance.

“In the old days, if you worked on the Hill [or] if you worked in government, you became a lobbyist,” said Griffin, a former assistant to the president for legislative affairs. “Now people come into the profession in a lot of different ways.”

Accordingly, the program — the only one of its kind in the United States, and hence the world, said Thurber — aims to provide participants with a broad and nuanced perspective of the lobbying profession.

“The students learn all elements — grassroots, ‘toproots,’ AstroTurf, coalition-building among associations and groups, direct lobbying of Members as well as staff, involvement in political campaigns, and PAC contributions,” said Thurber, a former aide to then-Sen. Hubert Humphrey (D-Minn.). “They also get into developing TV ads and print ads.”

What students also get is a healthy dose of ethics — a subject that is particularly welcomed by such institute lecturers as Larry Noble, the executive director of the Center for Responsive Politics, a watchdog group that tracks money in politics.

“What attracted me to the institute is the idea they are concerned about the ethics of lobbying,” said Noble. “It can be an honorable profession. It’s not always done that way, and I’m glad to aid in the training of lobbyists the right way.”

The institute’s ambitious four-credit, two-week course — which runs from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. five days a week, and frequently keeps students up late into the night working on their projects — is offered only twice a year, in January and May. It can also be taken on a non-credit basis. The institute also sponsors a variety of one-credit classes throughout the year, ranging from interest-group litigation to Congressional testimony.

People who take the workshops “realize that everyone is a special interest, and the demonization of the profession isn’t fair — even people who came into it thinking that lobbyists were one rung lower than lawyers,” said Sena Fitzmaurice, a lobbyist with Wexler & Walker Public Policy Associates. Fitzmaurice took the course in the early 1990s while she was a student at American University and now credits it with aiding her own career.

Nina Loesche, a German graduate student who traveled all the way from Berlin to attend the program, added that when she began the program, “I pretty much thought you just go and buy a vote. I learned it’s a bit different — it’s the money that follows the votes and not the other way around.” (Several years ago, a dean who oversaw the program recoiled from the term “lobbying,” and the name was changed to the “Public Affairs and Advocacy Institute.”)

The institute places a premium on inviting lobbyists from a wide range of political perspectives, Griffin said. The most recent workshop, which wrapped up last month, featured everyone from Glen Caroline of the lobbying arm of the National Rifle Association to Judy Wilkenfeld of the Campaign for Tobacco-Free Kids.

“From a political perspective, it’s absolutely agnostic or bipartisan,” Griffin said.

But in light of the nearly decade-long effort by House Majority Leader Tom DeLay (R-Texas) to boost the number of Republicans in lobbying shops around town — and the growing stature of politically homogenous lobbying shops — the program has to tread carefully around the question of bipartisanship in lobbying.

“We tell them exactly what’s going on [about DeLay’s project] — we don’t hold back on anything,” Thurber said. “We have a very strong emphasis on ethics, so the fact that some people are pushing the envelope out in the world of lobbying — we point those things out.”

To date, the program has been so successful that Thurber, Griffin and Gary Andres of the Dutko Group are already planning a book. The volume, due for completion within the next 18 months, is structured around the various topics discussed in the workshop.

Ideally, Andres said, the institute’s work will contribute to the education and eventual employment of a new generation of advocacy professionals.

“Hopefully, people will come out of it and work in this town,” Andres said.