I have been the communications director for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference full time now for coming up on a couple of months. I have to confess that I had never heard of the group before I heard about the opening — and I was in the news business for 25 years!
So it’s totally understandable if you have not heard of us. And we don’t mind flying under the radar. However, there are others who have heard about us and may not have the kindest things to say about what we do.
Let me be lazy for a second and consult our website to explain what exactly the Pa. Catholic Conference is. It says we are the public affairs arm of the bishops and diocese around the state. We handle legislative issues and communicate with lawmakers and other community leaders to help get legislation that will help the Catholic Church and the programs and ideals that are rooted in our faith.
That is a nice way of saying we are lobbyists. In some corners of society, the term “lobbyist” has gotten the old bad rap. In biblical times, we would have ranked somewhere between tax collectors and Herod. We probably would have gotten stoned somewhere along the line. Even the Good Samaritan may have looked away. Fortunately I came from the TV news industry, so I didn’t have to move too far in the pecking order. I won’t say if it is up or down.
But say what you want about lobbyists — they are necessary in politics these days. Or in any day. If you want something done in Harrisburg or Washington, you need someone to help push your agenda along. Think of it in football terms. The lobbyists are the lineman. We do the blocking. Yes, we are the ones with the holding penalties and the annoying, bone-headed false starts, but without people of our ilk, the ball carriers would go nowhere and the quarterback would get clobbered on every play.
That’s the case here in Pennsylvania and in Washington. According to an article last year in the Hill newspaper, lobbying activity in Washington reached a seven-year high in 2017, with $3.34 billion spent. The piece in the Hill says the overhaul of the U.S. tax code in December 2017 was the most-lobbied issue of the year, with nearly 1,400 groups working for or against the legislation.
Lobbyists have a presence in Pennsylvania as well. The group StateImpact Pennsylvania estimated there are more than 1,200 lobbyists in Harrisburg. We all make sure that lawmakers aren’t lonely when they’re at the Capitol. “I need to listen to all sides of an issue,” state Senator Judy Schwank of Berks County told StateImpact. “What I worry about is who I don’t hear from.”
Some groups have more voice than others. The PSEA teachers union, for example, has spent almost $23.2 million of teachers’ dues money since 2010 on political activities and lobbying. That’s according to the group “Free to Teach.”
Most groups across Pa. have lobbyists — anywhere from one to a dozen or even more. That includes companies, non-profits and trade groups. I took a head count here at the PCC and came up with four of us. Technically I do lots of other stuff, so make that 3 1/2. Mehhh, more like 3 1/4 — I’m new.
I reached out to my friend Eric Epstein, a political watchdog who founded the non-partisan voter education group Rock the Capital. Eric never pulls any punches, so I asked him for his honest impression of lobbyists. I got it.
“To navigate the swamp and bag the game, many quasi-government agencies hire tour guides,” Eric said. Yes we are those tour guides! “The unfortunate reality is that if you don’t have access and influence, your shorts will get eaten by another state, agency or commission.”
No one wants that.
“This is the quintessential Faustian bargain for taxpayers,” Epstein said. “If you don’t hire political mercenaries to do your bidding, you are likely to watch your bridges and roads crumble while your ports clog and college tuition spikes.”
It’s a compliment. Yes, on the back of a hand — but a compliment nonetheless. Not everybody may like us. But we are necessary. Like the offensive linemen, we do the grunt work.
Al Gnoza is communications director for the Pennsylvania Catholic Conference, the public affairs agency of Pennsylvania’s Catholic bishops and the Catholic dioceses of Pennsylvania.
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