The harshness of recent political discourse should make it clear that a bit more civility needs to be injected into our political and legislative processes. Perhaps a good start would be to better understand the role of lobbyists and stop using them as targets to arouse animosity towards a candidate or cause.

Despite a lot of general knowledge of this activity, few people understand all of the intricacies associated with lobbying. Many believe that only “special interests” lobby and that such interests are inherently evil and represent corrupt or greedy corporate interests. That is pure nonsense and a direct result of misleading rhetoric.

The fact is, lobbying, in the usual context, is essential to the legislative process. When you consider the vast range of issues confronting lawmakers, and the enormous complexity of many of them, it is not hard to understand why outside help from informed sources is required. A lobbyist provides the lawmaker specialized knowledge, albeit from the perspective of the particular interest being served.

A case in point comes to mind. Years ago a senator from a northern county introduced a bill into the Arizona legislature that would have eliminated the contestability clause in all life and health insurance policies. (The senator was a personal injury lawyer in private life.) The affected committee chairman called and asked that I come down and testify as to the merits of the proposal. The members of the committee were all unaware that the proposal would have wiped out an important policyholder benefit, the right to have an incontestable policy after 2 or 3 years. After my testimony the bill died a quick death. Who were the special interests in this case? The insurance-buying public.

When I was president of the board of one of our local school districts I was often asked by the leaders of the classroom teachers association to meet with members of the legislature on matters affecting our schools. Lobbying pure and simple, and who were the special interests? The children in our district.

Sometimes lobbying addresses a single issue, either in one episode or on a sustained basis. Addressing a single issue offers the lobbyist latitude not available to those who represent many issues on a continuing basis. Concentrating on one issue is, for the most part, a relatively simple process. However, when an organization has to monitor and speak to a great many subjects, and over many years, the job becomes extremely complicated. Additionally, if a lobbyist is to be effective then the message carried has to be believed. Credibility is the lobbyist’s most important stock in trade. Credibility, in turn, can be maintained over a long period only if the lobbyists and the information being provided are reliable and consistent.

Further complicating the work of lobbyists working for an industry organization such as NAIFA or the ACLI is the importance of preventing a collision of objectives. Unlike organizations championing a single issue we often face multiple issues simultaneously. In such instances care must be taken to be sure arguments set forth to pursue one objective do not detract from testimony being made in regards to some other cause. For example, a delicate position may result when lobbying against increased taxes on insurance products or policyholders when, at the same time, testimony may be required in connection with federal or state budget proposals.

No special interest, including our own, can expect to prevail in all instances. Experienced lawmakers will not limit their exposure to outside interests to a single group. Often there are many voices to be heard and with differing input. The lawmaker then has to choose which advice to heed. For that reason it is crucial in lobbying to be able to demonstrate that the public interest, the lawmaker’s primary concern, is best served by the position being advocated. Everyone likes to put their best foot forward, but in lobbying it is imperative.

I bring this up because it is no secret that the next administration and Congress will be looking for new sources of revenue to support the various economic stimulus packages being studied. Reduction in taxes in one area usually means an increase somewhere else. There is no question but that all tax expenditures will be examined to justify their preferences. Within our products, tax expenditures, such as the tax-free inside buildup and tax-free dividends, will once again receive careful scrutiny to validate their usefulness. There are many others, of course, all of which enhance the value of our products. The coming debates will call upon all our best skills to prove the benefits of our tax preferences to the public at large.

But the performance must also match whatever testimony we give. Our products and the value we provide must be perceived as being true to their purpose without violating either the spirit or the letter of our tax laws. I get nervous when I see the envelope being stretched to fit a new marketing concept–particularly if it can be characterized as a tax shelter. When working on the frontline in our tax battles, I witnessed first-hand how such activities can undermine our legislative agenda.

NAIFA, AALU, ACLI and other industry organizations have over the years maintained active roles in the legislative process at both the federal and state levels. But regardless of the issue there has always been a common denominator in our activities. Above all else we have tried to maintain the integrity of our testimony and be steadfast in any commitments we make. Occasionally, one may be successful violating this precept–but only once. For the operative rule in Washington is: “Forgive and remember.”