Photograph: Wikimedia Commons

Why our founders would have loved lobbyists

February 17, 2016 David Banks

Scott Segal is not the kind of lobbyist who lurks in the shadows. The garrulous Bracewell lobbyist, who just finished his annual pilgrimage to Mardi Gras, was featured on “The Daily Show with Jon Stewart” in 2011 for a segment lampooning how special interests killed an otherwise non-controversial bill encouraging exercise.

Segal coached correspondent Wyatt Cenac on the best strategy for getting a bill passed, with a Godfather-esque line: “Show them why the legislation is in their best interest.”

The Texas native has been showing lawmakers why measures are in their best interest for nearly three decades. Laconic and folksy at times — a nod to his Texas roots — and always ready for a good conversation or a verbal battle of wits, Segal brings his experience as a college debater and debate coach to bear for clients ranging from Southern Co. to Valero Energy.

He’s also a history buff, whose corner office boasts museum-quality relics of the federal government’s long, colorful past, including rare documents (Segal’s goal is to get at least one signed document from each president, “what I call presidential document bingo”) and letters of thanks from one of his favorite presidents, Bill Clinton.

The K St. office is his base of operations and inner sanctum. “I’m not the kind of guy who trolls the hallways of Capitol Hill — too much marble, it hurts the feet,” he says with a laugh. And he’s no fan of populist political campaigns calling for radical change: “If you really want to achieve something, you’d be well-advised to look at incrementalism — to see what’s achievable in the system, and what changes are potentially achievable,” he says.

Bloomberg Government caught up with Segal just before he made his annual trip to New Orleans (by train; he doesn’t like to fly), to talk about strategies for good negotiation, the roots of the capital’s partisan rancor, and why lobbying might be the most patriotic of all Washington careers:

Many of your clients have a keen interest in S. 2012, the energy policy bill currently stalled in the Senate.

Segal: In any energy bill there’s going to be a lot of interest, and we’re going to have a lot of client interest. We represent power companies, petroleum refiners, upstream oil and gas companies, renewables, energy efficiency building and appliances; it’s really the whole gamut.

When I first came to Washington, energy legislation was always highly bipartisan. It reflected more regional differences of opinion, rather than partisan differences of opinion. But as time has gone by, all legislation has gotten a lot more partisan, unfortunately so. So the opportunities to do energy legislation have gotten fewer and fewer. But the pent-up appetite to do things on energy remains about the same.

Where do you think the current partisan tone in Washington comes from?

Segal: The degree of partisanship in the city really starts with leadership. When you have individuals who genuinely like each other, or at least like people, that really sets the tone. For example, in the Reagan years, he was always perceived as the “happy warrior.” And the word went out that, as many policy disagreements you might have with the White House, you could disagree without being disagreeable.

Bill Clinton famously made telephone calls to everyone on Capitol Hill to stay in touch, irrespective of political party, and I think genuinely liked people. The George W. Bush administration, if left to the better angels of his nature, would have carried on that same tradition, as he did when he was governor of Texas. There was a lot of outreach from the executive to the legislative branch.

But events got in the way — the economy, and of course 9/11 and military issues. And that began to widen the fissure between the parties, and between the legislative and executive branch.

Does that make your job harder?

Segal: It does. And it makes it less enjoyable. And in an interesting way, it makes what I do more important and relevant, because it’s increasingly difficult for an individual to ford those partisan, regional, institutional gaps. You have to have someone who looks at the long view — and most of the people who work in this area, who practice the dark art of government affairs work, we can help ford those divides. So while what we do may be more important than ever, it’s not as pleasant as it used to be.

Debate is a big part of your life. How does the art of debating shape how you approach your job as a lobbyist?

Segal: I was the debate coach at University of Texas at Austin, and when I moved here I in 1989 became the debate coach at Georgetown University, and then George Washington University, and eventually chairman of the board of the National Tournament of Debate, which is kind of like the NCAA of debate. I have a long experience with debate, in parallel with my law degree, so I came to Washington with both of those strands — collegiate debate coaching, and also being a law student. I think both of those skill sets have been useful in doing what I do here. Maybe the debate coaching, more so than the law degree.

Being a debate coach is knowing what to say, but also knowing what not to say — knowing when to argue, and when to shut up. And the ones that argue all the time are what we call amateurs.

You’ve worked nearly three decades in Washington, and have negotiated with counterparts who are diametrically opposed to the positions of the clients you represent. What’s your best advice for how to gain consensus?

Segal: Washington, D.C. has as many viewpoints and interest groups as you can imagine on a particular issue set. Sometimes there’s the notion that it’s always private interests versus public interests. But the debate actually begins with private interests versus private interests.

Not all industries take the same position on every issue, so the first negotiation usually begins with coming up with a unified position for industry to take. By the same token, the public interest community doesn’t have a uniformed view on most topics, either.

Environmentalists of one flavor may come at it one way, another flavor another way. And then there may be other public interest groups — for example, labor or consumer organizations — which actually take a contrary view to the mainline environmental position. There are a lot of different views in the room, so how do you proceed?

There is never a need to walk into a room with the idea in your head that you’re going to bend everyone to your will. As soon as you do that, you begin to lose support. When I’m in a negotiation, I try to listen to what the other side is saying and reduce what they’re saying to what they need, and in what order do they need it.

Are you more of a people person, or a policy wonk?

Segal: You have to be able to walk both paths. I love getting to know my clients, the decision-makers that are impactful for those clients, on a personal basis, because I like to talk to people. Our job would be supremely boring if there wasn’t a whole lot of physical interaction with both the decision makers and our clients. I love talking about hobbies, and restaurants, and theater, and all kinds of things, in addition to having no-holds-barred discussions over the politics and policy of what we’re trying to accomplish.

I think that lobbying occurs on a spectrum, between access lobbyists who are really just there to put a client in touch with a decision maker or a key staffer, and what you might call substance experts who have become so conversant with the underlying regulatory issues and statutes that they can in some ways act in place of the expert who’s with the client.

How do you measure success? What are your metrics?

Segal: The thing I struggle with the most with clients is making sure they have realistic expectations, because a lot of the government relations work we do is inherently opportunistic. We identify an opportunity and we ride that opportunity until it’s done.

But you can’t always predict exactly when the opportunities will rise. Yes, you can create opportunities, and we do that when we can, but it’s not a sure thing. The irony of this is, sometimes we’re hired by clients, and have been so successful in a short period of time, that it’s raised expectations that that’s the way Washington always works. And of course it’s not. It’s an expectations game to make sure expectations meet reality.

The nature of the project determines the appropriate metrics. For some projects there’s a very binary solution — yes, or no, in the bill our out of the bill. Is the language in the legislation or regulation changed, or is it not changed? For those, there’s a relatively simple mechanism. For other projects, there’s a trend line you’re trying to influence. And for those, I would say incrementalism is appropriate: Have we set out appropriate sets in the direction of that trend line, and are we achieving those steps?

I hear some political campaigns these days, particularly among some young people, saying “I want to throw myself behind a candidate that promises revolution, because that’s where I hope to be.” I appreciate aspirational goals, I think that’s really wonderful, but if you really want to achieve something, you’d be well-advised to look at incrementalism — to see what’s achievable in the system, and what changes are potentially achievable.

But that’s a political discussion. You can have the most love in your heart, and you can’t get around the dynamics of that political system. I think it was George Washington who said it best: “The hot tea of the House is cooled by the saucer of the Senate.” And that’s exactly right — we’re a bunch of saucers around here, we’re here to cool tempers.

How has compliance changed the way Washington works?

Segal: There are some flawed assumptions at basis of some of our congressional ethics laws. The notion that two people would come together, each order a hamburger but only one would pay — that that action would influence the course of legislation, seems a little bit simplistic for me. It makes the town less pleasant, and it makes it harder for a person of modest means to live and work in the city as a young person. It’s an unintended consequence, and it’s another spoiler.

Do you have a mentor?

Segal: I was extremely fortunate along the way to have several mentors. The founder of our practice at Bracewell (Policy Resolution Group) is Gene Godley. I met Gene as a student at the University of Texas, and we got into a conversation where I insisted that in order to do this kind of work, government relations work, you need to have worked on Capitol Hill. And he said, no, you don’t need to have worked on Capitol Hill. Which was easy for him to say, since he’d been chief of staff on three different Senate committees, and had been assistant secretary for legislation in the Treasury Department.

And as if to prove that point, he asked me to come to Washington to do this work, and taught me what I know about congressional procedure and how the town worked.

When you reach a certain age — in Texas, we would say long in the tooth — you start to become a mentor for others. Working off Gene Godley’s model, the Bracewell approach stresses mentorship. We have brought in Capitol Hill staffers and shown them what private practice looks like, plus we show recent law school grads how Washington really works. It’s great training.

Do you have any advice for those young law school graduates?

Segal: Look to Capitol Hill. I think the legislative jobs are a place to start, and then working for the executive branch, might make more sense. Or coming off Capitol Hill and working for a trade association, a public interest group or being in private practice.

What people think about Congress is that everyone is arguing and nothing gets done. But in reality, Congress engages in oversight, appropriates the funds and they legislate. Admittedly, that third thing, the legislation, is the part that is the hardest for them to do. Oversight has become deeper, wider, more interesting. Appropriations is a constant.

What’s Bracewell’s biggest lobbying goal for 2016?

Segal: We are very interested in the progress of the carbon regulations and what that means for commitments the president made in Paris, what that means for pending regulations at the Environmental Protection Agency, and what that means for Congressional oversight.

On the refining side, a hardy perennial for us has been the Renewable Fuel Standard, also known as the ethanol mandate. With Senator Cruz’s victory in Iowa, it suddenly seems like ethanol is no longer the third rail of Midwest politics. If you’ve got an idea of how to fix that pesky mandate, that idea probably will get a hearing.

We’ve had a real interest in advancing the cause of sensible policy for renewables and energy-efficient technology. That’s been a big issue for us and will continue to be. What really changed the concept of a singular commitment to a source of power generation was the sustained low commodity price of natural gas.

Innovation and technology should be the basis of sensible energy policy, not belief and drama.

What do you think makes a lobbyist effective?

Segal: The people who impress me the most have good communication skills, are nice, have command of the substance — or if they’re not 100% sure of where they are, know where to turn, and are reasonable and approachable.

The idea that everybody has to be like Jack Abramoff, be a hard-ass who breaks wise guys like matchsticks, it’s not true of all lobbyists. Most successful government-relations professional are going to be one that are approachable and are willing to listen to the other side, and willing to let the other side’s views, to a certain extent, influence their conception of what the art of the possible is.

The word “lobbying” is often used as a pejorative — do you think lobbyists deserve better?

Segal: Lobbying is the only exercise that’s protected three different times by the U.S. Constitution — and if you do communications work, four times.

I think the Founding Fathers would be very surprised to learn that lobbying is something that is looked down upon. They would have thought that lobbying is foreseeable as the government grew in size and complexity. The Library of Congress was established on the notion that it would provide Congress with all the information it needed to make decisions. And it must have been obsolete in six months, because information is not static, it rolls based on innovation in the marketplace.

The lobbyist is almost like the honeybee of the Washington community. We pick up the information and distribute it from location to location until everybody has it and can make decisions accordingly. I don’t find it a distasteful occupation; I find it an absolutely essential one for the operation of the government. Information needs are too complex, and need to be satisfied too quickly, to expect that it will all just happen by chance.

You’re having dinner with President Obama. Where would you go, and what would you talk about?

Segal: I’d probably invite him over to my house in Dupont Circle. It’s an interesting part of Washington. The meal will have something with meat in it, just to piss off the vegans!

If we were having a perfectly candid conversation, I would say to this president or any president that’s it’s incumbent on the president to make sure there’s good relations between Congress and the executive branch. Congress is a many-headed Hydra, nobody speaks for all of Congress, whereas we have a unitary executive. The president is the head of the executive branch, and if the president wants to have good relations with Congress, the president can do it. It takes work.

True story: While Congress was busy trying to impeach Bill Clinton, Bill Clinton was passing a budget. So it is possible, even under the most trying of circumstances, for a president to make that outreach to Congress. A missed opportunity for the current executive has been, maybe because he didn’t spend that much time in the Congress before he left, was the ability to take his very winning personality — which he does have — and put it to good use by establishing good relations throughout Capitol Hill. I think he missed that opportunity, even among Democrats.

When you first came to Washington in 1989, you thought you’d spend a few years here before heading back to private practice in Texas. Here you are, nearly 30 years later…

Segal: I love this place! Who doesn’t love Washington? Somebody asked me once: Do you ever get sick of it? No matter how long you’ve been working here, no matter how cynical you may be, here’s my test: If you are walking along the Mall at night, and you see the lighting on the Capitol, augmented by the moonlight, and the thought that goes through your head isn’t “For all of its flaws, this is the most powerful and effective democracy in the world.” If you have a view counter to that, you should not be working in Washington, you should be somewhere else.

Since 1989, when I’m walking along the Mall and I see that view of the Capitol, I’m reminded that anybody can make a difference. Anybody can go in and make an appointment with their senator or member of the House. Most of the people who tell you that Washington doesn’t listen, Washington doesn’t hear what I say, have never tried talking to Washington. Because the city is actually very open to dialogue. Now, if what that person means is that once I say what I want, Washington must bend to my will, not everybody can win. But being open to it, and being part of the process? Anyone can do that.

I was asked to mention two words: Flying, and Mardi Gras.

Segal: (Laughs) The year is 1997, I’m giving a speech in Las Vegas, I think I have food poisoning, I decided to fly home early… Bad idea. I got very sick on the airplane, ended up in a hospital in Las Vegas, discharged two days later. I’ve never flown again.

I am the king of the iron horse — I can tell you how to get anywhere on Amtrak. I can tell you, no, Amtrak does not need to make money by conventional standards, it ought to be better funded, we should have an equal train system in this country to what they have in Europe.

And as a result of taking the train everywhere, I became quite familiar with the city of New Orleans, because if you’re going to Houston the fastest way to get there is to go through New Orleans. So I began to make friends there, and eventually became a member of the Krewe of Bacchus.