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COVID-19 pandemic has created a whole new lobbying world

Michelle Siri

Michelle Siri, executive director for The Women’s Law Center, said the rules for lobbying in 2021 is so different given the COVID-19 pandemic.

One of the most crucial aspects of lobbying is getting face time with policymakers. Sometimes it is grabbing a few precious moments as they walk the halls of the Maryland State House. Other times it is chatting with them about a particular issue while they attend an event.

These interactions can be as much, if not more important, than the work going on in the committees and testimony being submitted.

But the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic has drastically changed how lobbying looks during this year’s General Assembly.

In addition to face masks and protective plexiglass screens, the 90-day session has limited the number of individuals with access to the State House. A majority of committee work is going on virtually.

“It is so different,” said Michelle Daugherty Siri, executive director for The Women’s Law Center of Maryland. “Even just how it looks and we all look. It is a whole different ballpark. The rules are different in the House versus the Senate. But it all comes down to we don’t have the in-person interaction with folks. We don’t have that chance meeting with folks. It is really about being organized and having as many folks as possible be able to jump in there and advocate on issues.”

Those lobbyists that are not based in the state capital are at a disadvantage. The ones that are may still get a chance meeting with a policymaker as they arrive or leave the building.

“For organizations like mine, we lose out on that,” Siri, whose nonprofit is based in Towson, notes. “If you are an individual who really cares about issues, you are even further removed from things.”

Another challenge faced is the technology gap including having access.

“Lobbyists, for the most part, we’ve all got that but I think a lot about the grassroots work that we try and do and getting individuals engaged in the process of our legislature,” Siri said. Some individuals have broadband issues across the state and do not have access to the internet or computers.

Caryn York, Job Opportunities Task Force CEO, said before the pandemic there were always challenges to ensuring individuals who wanted to participate in the democratic process of policymaking were able to add their voices to discussions.

“We have a digital divide that means not everyone is going to be able to access the internet to be able to weigh in with testimony,” she said.

Getting use to new rules

Lobbyists are also trying to stay on top of new rules put into place for this session including only filing documents during certain times.

“People are used to doing their work at various hours and if they go to try and file testimony late at night which is when they normally would be thinking about those things, they are not getting it done,” Siri said.

There are also limits to who can testify which varies in the House from committee to committee while in the Senate they are doing sponsor panels and judicial proceedings.

As an example, one person is selected as the random proponent that can testify.

“If you are not picked from that lottery, you don’t get to be there,” Siri said. “That is also something that is very difficult for laypeople to try and figure out and navigate. It is just a challenge logistically for us. We are working on bills and coalitions and things like that. We are all saying ‘OK. Everybody try and get on there and sign up.’ For the House, it is first come first serve so we need to sign up as early as we can. On the Senate side, let’s all put our name in and hope one of us gets picked for the lottery. Those are the big challenges.”

Caryn York (File photo)

Caryn York,  CEO of Job Opportunities Task Force, said the limits on lobbying in 2021 can make it difficult to get your message across. (File photo)

York notes another challenge is testimony time limits. Sometimes people only get a minute or two to tell policymakers how potential legislation may impact them.

“When you are talking about an issue that impacts lives in a devastating way and you only give someone one minute or two minutes to be able to testify, that is so jarring,” she said. “It is so unnerving. It is stressful and it is just unfair. I know that leadership and our policymakers were trying to figure out a way — how can we do this virtual and make sure folks can weigh in — it is difficult.”

She has seen some committee chairs that will not allow an individual to testify if someone else signed them up.

“You may have needed someone to sign you up because you are not an Annapolis player so you didn’t know the process of having to create an account with the Maryland General Assembly,” York said. “Just the stress and many times the lack of understanding and flexibility that is provided to those individuals that want to weigh in on the policymaking process that is impacting their lives. It is very, very frustrating and at times can be very discouraging for participants.”

Being successful in 2021

So how can lobbyists be successful during this year’s session? According to Siri, coalitions, right now, are more important than ever.

“If you can have a whole group of folks who are trying to get that random slot and one of you gets it, you can coordinate your message.”

Another technique used this year more than in past sessions is sign ons which is when an organization creates a general letter of support for their legislation and then have different organizations or individuals signing on to that rather than try to go solo.
York notes her nonprofit is still trying to navigate this new lobbying world.

“It is extremely frustrating because we are trying to abide by these very stringent rules while also providing an opportunity for the directly impacted in our partners to be able to weigh in on these policies that could very well be harmful to the population that we are advocating on behalf of that we are supporting and that we are helping while our policymakers are passing laws about the work that we are doing,” she said.

Siri believes there are some advantages to this new General Assembly. Folks don’t have a commute or pay for parking. There is also less paper involved since documents are being submitted electronically which is more environmentally-friendly. With sessions going virtual, more people who have access can watch the proceedings leading to more transparency. “Anybody can hop on now,” Siri said.

For those that are chosen, this new process also allows for folks to testify from home without having to travel, take off from work or possibly get a babysitter. “(They) can engage and be a witness for us on an issue,” Siri said. “It is more accessible for people.”
Moving forward, Siri hopes some of the changes including being able to submit testimony online will remain.

Women Who Lead This article is featured in The Daily Record’s Women Who Lead: A Woman’s Guide To Business. The mission of the Women Who Lead (formerly Path to Excellence) magazine is to give our readers the opportunity to meet successful women of all ages, backgrounds and beliefs and learn how they define success. Read more from Women Who Lead.