It was not my first time on the Hill. Truth be told, my first came in the late nineties when my then boyfriend and I traipsed the landscaped terrain for free romantic ambiance. But this was my first time going inside any of the buildings, though it is - and has always been - my right to do so as a citizen. TCG has a strong advocacy wing headed up by Laurie Baskin. They actively seek to inform members - and the field at large - of the policy issues that impact our work, and, in exchange, they ask for our participation in advocating for our best collective interests.
I've been an advocate before - mostly on grant panels and through participation in arts education roundtables. Being an advocate means that you amplify voices of interested parties in places where decisions are being made to make sure their perspectives and concerns are heard and their interests respected. But now I can say I have lobbied.
Being on the Hill can be a simultaneous intimidating and inviting thing. For starters, entering the building that held the offices of then presidential primary candidate Bernie Sanders was easier than entering most buildings in midtown Manhattan: Just a bag scan and in you go! "No picture? No photo I.D., no wanding?" I said. Nope. Surprising. It was also interesting to see the other people on hand lobbying for their interests. There was a beer lobby, a chocolate lobby, and, to our surprise and delight, Morgan Freeman himself lobbying for conservationists of the oceans on behalf of whales and dolphins. We even saw Cindy Crawford in the halls, though I don't know what she was pushing for - perhaps some approval of an ingredient needed for her skin care line. The aids and interns and Cory Booker himself clamored over her. Clearly celebrity has infiltrated even the lobbying world.
We were lobbying for increased funding of the National Endowment of the arts, increased funding of arts education within the US Department of Education, more timely processing of visas for cultural exchange, to preserve incentives for charitable giving and for the protection of wireless microphone technology - all issues our NJ Senator Menendez has direct influence over given his committee membership. That's the first rule of lobbying, don't spend time soliciting an official for things they don't get to vote for. Even better is to tailor your list to those things that are covered by committees they are on. Before this moment, I hadn't even considered how congressional acts (save ones that affect unions) could have an impact on our industry. I knew, from working at the NEA, how funding from presidential administration can vary and have a huge impact on direct grants and education - but wireless whitespace?! What theatre doesn't use wireless mics? Who knew that the channels were limited? Probably the sound engineers. And visas!? How can you plan a season or a tour without knowing when people are going to be able to show up? And charitable giving? Most theaters have substantial budgets for individual and corporate giving -- they are often moved to do so, in part, because they get a deduction. What would happen to theatre budgets if that incentive went away?! Most non-profit theatres don't make their budgets through earned income. Theatres would be greatly strained... and the existence of many would be in jeopardy.
Once in Senator Menendez's office, we weren't able to speak with him directly unfortunately, but we did engage one of his 'aides'. I don't like aids. Not because they are bad people, but because they stand between you and the person closest to the decision making. I know its impossible for our Senators to hear directly from every person they represent, but I got the distinct feeling that our ten minute meeting would amount to a mere soundbite when - or if - it was relayed to the Senator himself. And given our lobby doesn't have much power in the form of money and influence over the economy say the way energy lobby does, we really have to find ways to connect and appeal to some other sensibility. Our aide assured us that both he - whose mother was a professional artist - and the Senator - who loved going to the theatre - were amenable to helping us in any way they could. We were also told that there were ways in which the Senator would not push for our requests -- and it was explained why. Essentially, the Senator was going for more comprehensive legislation that would include our concern, but he was unwilling to push for it on its own because he felt that it would not result in the most beneficial outcome.
On this trip, Marshall Jones was our fearless leader and most senior member on the hill for TCG. It was wonderful seeing how he negotiated small talk and wrapped the conversation back around to our bullet points. He used all of the elements of good dramatic storytelling to capture the aids we spoke to and tried to get some commitment or some substantial link with which he could follow up. Brilliant. Needless to say, I think I've been bit by the lobbying bug. I think I've been bit big time.