Before retiring in late 2018, former National Association of Realtors chief lobbyist Jerry Giovaniello summed up the trade group’s lobby motto: “Make your friends before you need them.”
This strategy – and the associated give and take with members of Congress – continues to guide NAR’s political advocacy efforts and has paid off repeatedly, particularly during the pandemic, according to panellists at the Realtors Legislative Meetings on Wednesday at a session titled “NAR Lobbying Strategy: An Overview for International Members. “
“The importance of lobbying is to lay the foundations and have the background and confidence. So when the time comes for you to ask them to do something or to fight on your behalf, that confidence is already there that relationship built in, “said Joe Harris, NAR’s vice president of government agency, told attendees.
Lobbyists from other organizations found themselves “flattened” when Congress debated its massive pandemic relief bills because, according to Harris, they hadn’t won lawmakers’ trust for years like NAR had.
“If you’re trying to build these relationships on Zoom during the pandemic, good luck with it,” Harris said.
The bills ultimately contained provisions that NAR had fought for, including funding the paycheck protection program to cover independent contractors and rental support for renters and landlords.
Harris outlined various methods of lobbying for NAR applications, including formal meetings – the conference this week is typically attended by thousands of brokers flying to the capital and lobbying their lawmakers directly – as well as letters and social media posts that Oppose or support certain laws, and thanked legislators for introducing certain laws or offering to co-sponsor certain bills.
Official meetings are “probably the most common thing we do,” Harris said. “That can be in the office. It could be in a coffee shop. It could be in the hallway when you run to the hearings. However, these meetings are of an official nature. There is usually a question. And we obviously did a lot more of these at Zoom, which gave us the opportunity to do them a lot more often. “
According to Harris, NAR lobbyists also participate in fundraising drives and political activities to build and maintain relationships.
“You can’t do this today without supporting members of Congress and senators who are fighting for your problems,” he said. “You want to make sure they have the resources they need to tackle primary challengers and you want them to know you have their back.”
Harris said his preferred method of lobbying was social gatherings.
“If you don’t enjoy being around people and meeting new people, you probably won’t do very well in this job,” he said. “The first thing that is very important is to be respected and liked by the people you are lobbying for, because if they don’t like you, you can have the best things to talk about, you could make the most important arguments you could I have the best guidelines, but somehow it just doesn’t get through. “
NAR also submits comments to federal agencies during the regulatory process.
“We want to make sure that the bills passed in Congress are interpreted by the executive branch as Congress interpreted them, and that’s where the rulemaking process comes in,” Harris said. “They often have so-called comment deadlines, during which the stakeholders can think about draft rules or proposed rules before they are finalized. This is an extremely important part of our work. “
Congress staff attend to dozens of topics every day. One key to successful lobbying is figuring out why you should be interested in a particular topic.
“They make sure they care about it, most of all by showing how important it is to their constituents, and that usually has something to do with jobs or the economy or the price of houses or homelessness,” Harris said.
“It’s about making it so that they take care of it because if people don’t really know why their boss should really be paying attention to a problem, they are likely not paying attention to that problem. ”
Harris said lobbyists should do their homework before meeting with a lawmaker by looking at their voting results, media appearances, and speeches.
“You should know, ‘Hey Congressman, by the way, great job at CNN last night on flood insurance,’ or ‘I really enjoyed reading your comment the other day on property prices,'” said Harris. “Do this part of your advocacy and let them know you are paying attention to what they are doing.”
Building a relationship with a congressman or senator is like building a relationship with a friend – it takes time and, according to Harris, is a two-way street.
“It’s about building trust,” he said. “You have to invest your time and you have to be honest. It’s about not needing the relationship just so you have someone to go to when you have a problem or need information. It can’t be a one-way street. Maintaining these relationships really has a lot to do with showing you that you care about more than just business.
“You’d be surprised how many people don’t do that extra check-in step and drop by the office [and] say, ‘Hey, do you want to have coffee? How is your mother? I know she was sick. ‘”
Sharing information is also an important component of maintaining the relationship, according to Harris.
“Members of Congress cannot make decisions in a vacuum,” he said. “It is good for you to know how the guidelines we are discussing will affect our business, and it is good for you to know what the conditions are like in your local districts. And in return we get information from them: “By the way, in two weeks there will be a markup that hasn’t been noticed, but you might want to prepare some information about Issue X or Issue Y. ‘”
An important key to the success of NAR is, of course, the RPAC Political Action Committee, which Harris said is “highly regarded” by lawmakers. Because RPAC advertises itself as non-partisan and “puts its money where our mouth is” by giving members of Congress pretty much the same amount on both sides of the aisle that, according to Harris, separates NAR from other trade organizations.
“Everything is very partial,” he said. “We shine there. This is where we add a lot of value because we help organizations, groups like the bipartisan Problem Solvers Caucus, a group of 30 Democrats and 30 Republicans trying to find common ground. They understand that they won’t agree on 25 percent of things, so let’s focus on the 75 [percent] we can agree on that.
“We’re closing this gap by sticking to the economy, sticking to affordability, affordability of home ownership and fair living – issues that can bring the parties together. Our agenda is not to turn one or the other party into an advantage. It’s supposed to get them talking. It’s about getting them to work together and give them the tools, information, statistics, research and draft guidelines that can become legislation. It gives them this lifeline. And that’s why you can see that we’re adding a lot of bipartisan laws to our topics of conversation this year. “
NAR has a federal policy coordinator program that assigns each member of Congress a volunteer in their district or state to educate lawmakers on issues that are important to the real estate industry.
“[FPCs are] Our first line of defense, and often our first line of attack, as I would like to say, with members of Congress because they are not only able to respond to upcoming events, but also to be proactive and warn us of things that are coming, that is could be a problem later before it becomes a problem, ”said Harris.
“This is the secret sauce of our advocacy because a lot of people have big lobbyists or a lot of money in their PAC. Very few organizations have assigned a person to each and every member of Congress who has their eyes and ears on the ground, someone they can trust, someone they can rely on to give them information that will be useful to them, and what’s going back in the district. “
Panelist David Wluka, the federal policy coordinator for US Senator Elizabeth Warren, noted that Warren’s team had relied on him as a resource on issues such as student loan provision.
“We have access to information that they don’t,” said Wluka. “We fed them back and forth and it creates an interdependence that is very powerful.”
Of course, according to Wluka, this information must be factually correct
“Our most important asset is our credibility,” he said. “When you take action, sponsor a bill, or reject one based on information from us, you are showing your own credibility. If we harm that, our credibility is gone. “
Unlike most trading groups, NAR is not viewed as selfish, and that is important, according to Wluka.
“It is the result of the fact that we are both [a] The basis, bottom-up organization and many of the policies, laws and programs that we support and follow have no direct bearing on our business results, ”he said.
“I testified before the congress and worked on laws for affordable housing, housing, and the environment – none of which will help sell a home. But we stand for land ownership, private property rights and the wider issues, and when we as FPCs enter Congress as voters, they understand that. “
While many realtors believe the government is like a distant, untouchable castle, lawmakers are like everyone else, according to Wluka.
“The government is open, but you have to report,” he said. “They are people like us. They happen to run for office, but they have a different life and they are real. They are not gods and do not sit in ivory towers. If they believe it is them, our job is to break through. “
Email Andrea V. Brambila.
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