A new website is offering the general public entrée to one of the Beltway’s most exclusive institutions: K Street.
When it launches next month, YouLobby will help voters pool their money to buy the sort of lobbying muscle powerful interest groups have long enjoyed. A passionate citizen can use the site to start an advocacy campaign, solicit donations and hire a professional lobbyist with that money.
The goal is to level the playing field in politics, according to founder Chris Litton, who is a lobbyist himself. Litton was inspired to start the site after he was approached by a nonprofit that could not afford his services.
Anybody can write a letter or visit a Member of Congress, but most people usually don’t have access to the back rooms where relationships are forged and decisions are often made. That’s why Litton calls lobbyists “an essential tool for the purpose of navigating Washington.”
“In advocacy, there’s all kinds of tools,” he said. “Having the ability to put a lobbyist on the ground and have a face on Capitol Hill pushing your cause takes it one step further.”
His idea relies on the ease of fundraising through online social networks. In recent years, sites such as Kickstarter have cropped up to help artists and entrepreneurs raise capital for projects from individuals rather than wealthy funders or banks.
YouLobby aims to do something similar for the public sector, where moneyed interests often prevail. Litton said the site would not exclude any issue or opinion, and that he welcomes competing campaigns to use the service. He plans to take a cut of the money raised to pay for overhead, which currently includes a staff of four based in Ohio.
The venture is just the latest in a stream of websites, including Popvox and Project Vote Smart, that are using technology to bridge the gap between citizens and government.
But YouLobby still relies on traditional lobbying to get the job done. To ensure its success, Litton has been presenting the idea to dozens of K Street firms in the hope of getting them on board.
So far, one lobbying firm, Watts Partners, has publicly agreed to participate. In addition to health care companies, colleges and NASCAR, the firm — founded by ex-Rep. J.C. Watts (R-Okla.) — already has some issue-based nonprofits as clients.
Once a YouLobby campaign has raised enough money to afford the firm’s services, Watts Partners could choose to bid on the project. The user who started the campaign would have final say on the deal.
Litton estimated that fees would fall to about $5,000 to $10,000 per month, although there are no set limits.
The obvious challenge facing the site is the snail’s pace at which Congress operates. While activists fired up by a particular cause might pay up initially, success could come only after an extended investment.
“Hiring the lobbyists might be instant, but actually seeing results might take years and more money,” said Christopher Kush, whose Soapbox Consulting trains nonprofit groups on how to lobby on their own.
And results might not come at all, a fact that could frustrate individuals who have spent tens of thousands of dollars on an unsuccessful campaign for a bill. To manage the activists’ expectations, Litton said he is requiring lobbyists to use a private blog to communicate with the campaigns’ members.
“For most lobbyists, your reporting to your client is a necessary part of your job. You want the client to feel comfortable with what you’re doing,” Litton said.
But the lobbyists won’t be required to provide a phone number. With thousands of grass-roots activists potentially involved in each campaign, the firms will have to carefully manage their availability.
For Watts Partners, it’s not just the price that would have to be right to take on a YouLobby campaign. Managing Partner Steven Pruitt said the firm would have to agree with the campaign’s goal because, “Client identification stays with you for a long time.”
“I think it’s more out of curiosity, if you will, that we’re willing to engage [in YouLobby],” Pruitt said. “If you’re on the cutting edge of some new approach, that allows you to be head and shoulders above others.”
Pruitt said he believes the site could provide an important service.
“People can get the book on how a bill becomes a law, but it doesn’t tell them about detours and bumps in the road,” he said. “What a lobbying firm brings to that effort is insight and experience.”
Kush agreed, pointing out that well-funded grass-roots groups often hire lobbyists to enhance their efforts.
“It’s so complicated to get anything done in our government,” he said. “A paid guide in a complicated system is not a bad idea.”