A Brief History of Lobbying in Albany

A Brief History of Lobbying in Albany

A Brief History of Lobbying in Albany
April 24, 2014

Back in 2012, Norman Adler and I co-authored a chapter entitled “Lobbying and the Interest Group System,” for The Oxford Handbook of New York State Government and Politics by Gerald Benjamin. I think our analysis has stood the test of time. 

Lobbying in Albany is much like working a Rubik’s Cube. The endgame often looks simple, but aligning all the colors can be an intricate process. Success emerges from assembling a broad coalition in support of a bill’s enactment, the adoption of a regulation or coalescing a critical mass of opposition so that a bill or regulation is defeated. 

Lobbying shouldn’t be assessed in a vacuum. Government and politics operate within a continuous news cycle. Statewide radio shows like Susan Arbetter’s and Fred Dicker’s often drive the news cycle. Twitter postings and blogs have dramatically quickened the pace of state government. Errol Louis’ Inside City Hall and Liz Benjamin’s Capital Tonight put a coda on the day’s events. City & State’s First and Last Reads get tongues wagging at the beginning and end of every day. 

The print press still plays an overreaching role in molding public opinion in New York, but no longer can responses from interest groups and their lobbyists wait for the deadlines of the next morning’s papers. Lobbyists must now practice their craft with this continuous news cycle in mind. 

Forty years ago lobbying was a virtual cottage industry. Through the mid-1980s the lobbying community was still a comparatively small club. The Business Council and the state AFL-CIO tended to speak for business and labor on major issues, while local government associations lobbied for counties, cities and towns. A relatively few, mostly Albany-based law firms handled the more complicated lobbying issues. 

Today all that has changed. We have seen an explosion of interest groups from both the corporate and not-for-profit sectors all wanting to aggressively advocate for their issues as New York State’s budget grew from $26.4 billion in fiscal year 1982–83 to the $142.1 billion proposed by Gov. Andrew Cuomo for fiscal year 2014– 15. That spawned a dramatic expansion in the number, texture and depth of lobbying firms to service their clients’ agendas (e.g., individual corporations, unions, universities, hospitals and other healthcare providers, as well as social service-based not-for-profits). 

National law firms, as well as major New York law firms, became key players lobbying in Albany. Non-law firms also joined the fray as major government relations firms. Small firms and solo lobbying practices flourished as well. Minority- and female-headed lobbying firms have also thrived in recent years. 

Nor is lobbying the sole province of lawyers, as successful lobbyists whose backgrounds are in policy, finance and public relations have jumped to the fore, handling highly specialized and complex issues (e.g., taxes, insurance and healthcare). 

Many ask, “Is lobbying effective?” The short answer is “yes.” Given that bills can be defeated at so many different levels—before a bill reaches a committee vote, in a committee vote, or held in a dual reference committee, on the floor or with a gubernatorial veto—and for so many different reasons—staff objections on policy, political and policy objections from leadership or within the conference by members, for regional or ideological reasons, often as a result of media pressure—it pays to have lobbyists “on the ground” to impact that process at every turn. 

When dysfunction reigns, the public often blames lobbyists. But if New York really wants to significantly change the current lobbying system, it must first change the political consensus underlying the level of services and funding provided by state government. As Adler and I concluded in 2012, “In the final analysis, lobbying in New York has become an integrated component of the transmission system within the engine of state government.” 


Bruce N. Gyory is a political and strategic consultant at Manatt, Phelps & Phillips LLP and an adjunct professor of political science at SUNY Albany. 


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Bruce N. Gyory