Yes, The NYS History Community Should Lobby


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CapitolIn one of those gentle ironies of life, Peter Feinman’s recent NY History Blog column, “Should the History Community Lobby?”, was positioned on the page next to a sidebar of recent history-related news stories which included the headline: “More than $200 million spent on NYS lobbying, report finds.”

As a professional lobbyist, and amateur historian, my response to Mr. Feinman’s question is a decided “Yes!” But that’s pretty much the kind of answer one would expect from someone in my profession. It’s the juxtaposition of his column with another story, confirming the magnitude of the role lobbying plays in New York, which is so telling.

But saying we should be lobbying is a lot like proclaiming “We should have more prosperity.” It’s a great idea, but it’s not quite as simple as that.

As the column notes – the lobbying expedition which inspired the author was well-organized, had an ambitious schedule distributed among several groups, and had well-prepared hand-out materials that sought to achieve specific goals. None of that “just happens.” As one who has arranged many of these events for clients over the years, I can testify that it takes an enormous amount of work.

More than that, besides all that preparation, there is an enormous amount of follow-up work involved that the people on Mr. Feinman’s lobbying trip will never get to see. Is the proper language in the budget bill, or stand-alone bill? Is it the same in both houses? Are the Governor’s office and the Executive Agencies on board? Are there outside groups who oppose it for some reason?

There are actually far more calculations than that which have to be considered, but you probably get the point by now. To be effective, a lobbying effort has to be managed by a professional with the expertise to not only organize the “numbers” and the “squeaky wheel,” but to make sure the effort doesn’t founder after a one-day lobbying trip to Albany.

That’s why more than $200 million was spent on lobbying Albany last year. Those private meetings Mr. Feinman wants to think of as “wheeling and dealing,” are actually the follow up to make sure that a client’s request won’t get lost in a state budget process which will allocate $138 billion this year. To put that $200 million in context – it works out to be just 0.14% (fourteen one-hundredths of one percent) of the total state budget! There’s a reason people are willing to spend that kind of money lobbying – an amateur effort will just be overwhelmed.

From my perspective as an amateur historian, I have to agree with Mr. Feinman – the need to establish a presence for the history community is crying.

It’s not just historic sites by the way, but comprehensive civics involvement is suffering. Even a professional organization like the New York State Bar Association recognizes the problem. In January, Bar Association President David M. Schraver sent a letter asking Gov. Cuomo to consider the critical need for civics education in the 2014-15 budget.

“Comprehensive civics education in all grades is critical if we are to have a citizenry that understands the role and functioning of our government,” he wrote. “We need future citizens who understand the institutions of constitutional democracy, including our system of law and justice.”

You might argue that civics and history are two different things. Oh really? Try studying one without the other.

But a lobbying campaign isn’t as simple as just deciding to do it. Especially for the history community.

This very website, having set the modest goal of raising $12,000 several months ago to sustain its operation, has only realized about half of that. So there is the matter of resources. An effective lobbying campaign would probably require five times that amount. Who would come up with that initial funding?

Then there is the question of what to ask for. Funding, obviously, but how much? Who gets it? How is it distributed? Who oversees that process? Are there issues besides funding that the history community should be asking government to redress? In other words, who sets the legislative agenda? What umbrella organization approves it?

It’s nice to think a group of common citizens, motivated by a shared passion for teaching others about our common heritage, could flock to the halls of the state Capitol and engineer a much-needed change in how our historic institutions are treated.

But it’s a little more complicated than that.

 

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Tom Shanahan

About Tom Shanahan

An accomplished writer and researcher, Tom Shanahan has authored articles on public policy and political history, which have been published in venues across New York. With special interest in the early federal era, he was an invited presenter at the Researching New York 2007 history conference, presenting a paper entitled "Lobbying: The Exercise of Power and Politics in New York," and as part of the New York State Library's Public Program lecture series. He is currently a lecturer in the New York Council for the Humanities’ speaker’s series, speaking on the topic – 1812 – Uncle Sam’s First War.He is also Executive Producer of the Web documentary: "1812 – Uncle Sam’s First War".A former Congressional press secretary and campaign staffer, he holds a BA in Political Science from SUNY Geneseo.

2 thoughts on “Yes, The NYS History Community Should Lobby

  1. Peter Evans

    Tom Shanahan’s comments are absolutely correct.
    Lobbying is not for the faint of heart or the unprepared.
    I participated in one of those lobbying days and felt like I was charging into each of the political members office naked with not a stich on. It was very uncomfortable and I really didn’t like it one bit.
    I didn’t want to appear to be wasting these people’s time.
    These people know me and I wasn’t really prepared to deliver an effective message.
    I had Senators leave meetings to come out and see me.
    I didn’t do a very good job….but I was committed to do what was expected.
    So, here was a case where I knew I had the ability to gain access but did not have the training or understanding how to deliver. Left to my own devices, I think I would schedule time with my Reps back here in their home offices…..but then I still need the well framed message. I like being truthful, and have no problem telling them that I am clueless about how to deliver the message but it is still dam important and that is why I am here.
    This ain’t easy to say the least.
    Peter

    Reply
  2. Tom Shanahan

    Peter,
    Thank you for your support, and for sharing your own experiences. I recently took one of those career-oriented personality tests. It suggested one of the careers I would be best suited for was lobbying and communications!
    But just because there are those of us who possess innate abilities in this field, doesn’t mean that the voices of people like you aren’t vital to the process. They are. If you felt unprepared for the trip, that should perhaps be communicated to whoever arranged it, so the mistake won’t be repeated.
    I have always made sure that the groups for whom I arranged lobby days were well-briefed beforehand, with a complete legislative agenda – and briefed again when they got to Albany.
    And, you are right – it would be just as easy to meet with your Senator or Assemblymember in their district office, but it’s important for staff in Albany to see that there are real people behind the requests coming from member’s offices.
    Again, voices such as yours are an important part of the process, and the people who get elected know it. That’s not only how they get elected, but stay elected.
    But you’re right, it’s not as easy as just scheduling a round of meetings and dividing into groups so that each meeting is covered. There’s more to it than that.
    Tom

    Reply

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