Confessions of a Young Lobbyist on Capitol Hill

“So, what do you do?”

I’ve gotten used to the reaction I get when I answer that question. Given my lack of gray hair, it’s usually one of surprise.

I’m 27 years old, and I’m a lobbyist.

We’ve all heard the saying that young people run Capitol Hill, but over the past five years I’ve come to realize just how advantageous my age actually is in my profession. In fact, I sometimes think it might be harder for older lobbyists to get things done.

While they’re throwing down $1,000 in the hope of grabbing a member’s ear for five minutes at a fundraiser, I’m in the Fairgrounds outside Nationals Park, having a beer with some friends before first pitch. Inevitably, many of those friends are Hill and administration staffers — people I roomed with in college or met last weekend at a friend’s birthday party.

The most useful strategies I develop often comes out of these kinds of off-campus interactions with staffer friends. When we start nerding out over possible bill co-sponsors at our monthly poker game, for instance, we know we don’t have to filter our ideas — which means we can be more open, bold and innovative. These ideas aren’t always perfect, but the number of times a key strategy or piece of intel has come out of casual discussions during poker or Sunday football would probably surprise you.

Of course, staffers are the people who actually get things done in D.C., which is why working with them is so productive. They’re the ones who bust their butts to understand issue complexities and intricacies — all while working for outrageously little money. Members are drinking from a firehose.

The best part of my job is working with the Hill to devise strategy — and helping staffers understand how this strategy will affect decision-making outside D.C. It’s not always easy to make that impact known on Capitol Hill, to show members the effects their decisions (or lack thereof) have in the rest of the country.

Take renewable energy tax credits, for example. The credits for wind projects were set to expire Dec. 31, 2012 (the credit was extended by the fiscal cliff deal), the others at the end of 2013. There was strong bipartisan support for extending the credits in both chambers. But the attitude on the Hill (on this and any number of other issues) was reactive, not proactive; Congress waited until the very last minute to talk about whether and how to extend these credits.

In the meantime, renewable energy projects require months of lead time for permitting and planning. Outside the Beltway, companies have to decide whether to sink millions of dollars into a project for which they might not be able to claim a tax credit six months down the road. No CEO worth his or her salt would move ahead with such uncertainty, so projects were put on ice and the associated jobs disappeared — just in time for the holidays.

That’s why I do what I do: to make Washington understand the country’s problems. Is the system perfect? Of course not. Most of the problems come down to money. Look, I get that members have to raise a lot of dough, both for their campaigns and for “dues.” But when I finish a meeting with a staff member, and check my phone to find an invitation to his boss’s fundraiser before I’ve left Longworth, it’s easy to understand why the country holds Congress in such disdain, and why so many on the Hill feel trapped in the system, too.

The elections were two months ago, and already I’ve been invited to several campaign events — for 2014. Now, I’ve run into some lobbyists who are in business solely because they are prolific fundraisers, but I think they give the profession a bad name. If you took an anonymous poll of lobbyists of all ages, I bet the percentage that favors serious campaign finance changes would blow you away.

But I’m not complaining — far from it. I’ve learned a great deal as a young lobbyist about how things actually get done in Washington, and the quizzical look I get when I tell people I’m a lobbyist is definitely worth it. My age gives me a number of advantages and insights that older lobbyists simply don’t have — and makes me better at my job in the process.

Mickey Leibner is director of government relations for the Moffett Group.