April, 2006
Legislative News
Inspection News and Views from the American Society of Home Inspectors



The Brutality of the Legislative Process: Perception and Reality

JANET SWANDBY

Do you remember the first time you drove to your state Capitol to testify before a Legislative Committee? How had you imagined the proceeding? How accurate were you?

“Not very” will be the answer from most of the ASHI membership.

Only a small percentage of Americans have ever stepped inside their state Capitol, and most of them will visit the building as a tourist. Even fewer have had first-hand experience in lobbying either for or against a piece of legislation.

ASHI members who have testified before a legislative committee will smile and nod their heads while reading Mr. Home Inspector’s (names and places have been changed so no one is offended) description of this first experience in the Every State Capitol. His poignant commentary presents an excellent learning opportunity for those working to “pass” or  to “kill” legislation regulating the profession.

Read Mr. Home Inspector’s description below, but please do not stop there. Also, review my comments that follow. My insights are offered as an experienced, professional lobbyist who helped assure that Wisconsin’s home inspector law was not written by Realtors®, and did include protections for the home inspector and the consumer.

Mr. Home Inspector’s story

It’s a great day here in my home city. We are currently well into the 45-day legislative session in my state, and I stand amazed. No, wait a minute. I stand dismayed.

Last Tuesday morning found me receiving an early morning phone call to let me know at 2 o’clock that afternoon our home inspection bill would be going before the Business Committee in the House of Representatives.

Two other ASHI members and I put on our suits and braved a heavy snowstorm to get to the state capital. I have never been to a legislative meeting before, and I spent the entire drive to the capital pretending that I was talking to the Senate Committee. I was intimidated by the process because it was all new to me.

I had a dream that the committee process was going to bring to light the truth. I had a dream that the process was going to bring about what would be best for the people of my state. I had a dream that my efforts would help our bill go forth. I HAD A DREAM! But my dream was shattered.

I learned an important lesson. Apparently, the biggest lobbyist groups have the most influence on Capitol Hill. Our supporting senator spoke to the committee and presented the bill in fine fashion. Then the three of us inspectors spoke. The committee didn’t ask any questions. I thought all was well. Boy, was I wrong.

The lobbyist for the home builder’s association next came to the microphone and stated that the association did not support the bill because it felt that all home inspectors needed to be four-way ICC-code certified. In other words, we would have to be code enforcement officials to inspect houses.

Then, the lobbyist for the State Association of Realtors® came in late and took his turn at the microphone. He stated something like following: “I am sorry for coming in late. I was in another committee hearing and I have not personally read this bill. But I have been briefed by an assistant, and I must say that the State Association of Realtors is firmly opposed to this bill for at least four reasons.” He then went into a
seven-minute tirade about how bad apprenticeship would be for the home inspection industry. He used examples of how bad it was for the appraiser industry, and how awful of an idea it was for home inspectors. Nobody tried to stop him and point out that apprenticeship was not a part of this bill proposal.

I then heard the ramblings of how this lobbyist had an inspection on his own home, and how worthless it was because of all the “Appears to be” phrases used throughout the report. He then fielded about 10-15 minutes of questions and commentary from the committee. It should be noted that no other person fielded any questions. So we had an uninformed lobbyist dominate the meeting about a bill he had never read. His entire goal was to frustrate the process and to get the bill kicked out for further review.

I was also surprised to learn that the committee itself was composed of players with strong conflicting interests. One of the power players on the committee is the owner of the largest realty firm in the state. He said nothing throughout the hour-and-fifteen-minute meeting. It was as though he knew that his lobbyist had everything in hand.

Then, there was the committee member who owns a large plumbing, electrical and heating firm. He rambled on and on about how bad home inspectors were. He stressed our incompetence and how much more qualified he was to do our job. He told stories of his workers arriving on the scene and finding nothing wrong after a home inspector had said there was. He apparently was trying to discredit the home inspection profession. His bias was that contractors with real-world building experience are the only ones qualified to do the home inspector’s job. He mocked those home inspectors who came from other industries.

All of these events shattered my dream because the process did not allow for rebuttal or clarification to get to the truth. The only remaining fragments of my dream came from the support of a committee member who defended this bill. He said, “Senators, currently here in this state we have nothing. This bill should be viewed as a first step to raising the bar on this industry.” He was so right in his assessment. This bill is a great first step.

So, the word for the week is blindsided. That is how I feel about the political process. It all comes down to who has the support numbers and the money. The two huge lobbyist groups apparently have the power to squelch anything they choose. They don’t need the truth. They don’t need to read the bill. They don’t need to present facts. I was amazed at how the red carpet is rolled out to them, and their opinions are so important to the decision making process. We thought we had them on board before the meeting, and yet they acted as though they were totally out of the loop.

The reasons for their actions may be due to events that transpired long before my involvement. If the stories I hear are true, then my disappointment is even greater. What I am sure of is that this was not an environment for getting to the truth. The end-consumer was not of utmost interest. Instead, it appeared to me that the process is dominated by power players claiming their territories. To this end, I had a dream.

LESSONS

You need a lobbyist

Some of the mystery and intrigue surrounding Mr. Home Inspector’s trip to the Capitol would have been assuaged if the ASHI chapter had retained a lobbyist. The lobbyist would have described the hearing process, explained that opposition is to be expected, and better prepared the ASHI members for the realities of the hearing. The lobbyist would have been able to give Mr. Home Inspector and his colleagues earlier notice of the hearing, and would be able to translate the comments from legislators and other lobbyists. For instance, silence from either does not mean support—neither does it mean opposition. An effective lobbyist also could also have made sure that someone from ASHI was able to testify after those who opposed the bill.

A hearing is not the beginning nor the end

A public hearing is one small step in a long, protracted process of getting legislation introduced, seeing it pass the legislature, and having it signed into law by the governor. The legislative process, especially to the business owner, can be a slow and deliberate process.

Lobbying for, or against, a bill is not done at the public hearing. ASHI members should never ignore a hearing, but the real lobbying work is done before the hearing and after the hearing. Committee members should be individually briefed on the bill before the public hearing is held. These meetings are more powerful if a home inspector, who is a constituent of the legislator, arranges the meeting.

After the hearing, there are more opportunities to communicate with committee members. These are the times to answer the concerns that were raised by legislators and/or the opposition. Indeed, in Mr. Home Inspector’s story, it was clear that the “plumber-legislator,” with his complaints about the incompetence of home inspectors, was presenting ASHI an opportunity. This legislator’s comments could have been turned on their ear and used to explain why state-imposed credentials are needed to protect the consumer from incompetent inspectors.

No bill becomes a law the first time it is introduced

I realize that the descriptions of “How a Bill Becomes a Law,” which were presented in our high school civics classes, gave this impression, but quick passage of a bill is truly a rare event.

Logic doesn’t pass bills, relationships do


The ASHI home inspectors were well-represented by the members who drove to the Capitol and testified in favor of the bill. They were armed with all of the necessary information; and I am certain that the facts and all of the logical arguments were presented with aplomb.

Unfortunately, the legislators on the committee had never met these guys before. The legislators appeared to have listened quietly and were probably impressed with the information and the professionalism of the home inspectors. But, because a personal relationship had never been forged, these legislators were more likely to give greater credence to the lobbyists for the home builders and the Realtors because they knew them and respected them as individuals. The legislators also were aware that some of their constituents belonged to the two groups the lobbyists represented.

Don’t whine about the power of money

Home inspectors will always be outnumbered. Home inspectors will never have the political clout of groups like the Realtors.

Whining about the power of other groups is an excuse—a poor excuse. There are many examples of home inspectors overcoming the clout of these other groups. It’s not easy. It requires hard work, but it has been, and will be, possible.

The guys in the white hats

We know that ASHI’s goals are pure, but that does not mean that anyone who opposes ASHI is evil. Your opponents did not “buy” their political clout. Your opponents did not become major players in the state capital because they were unethical. These groups earned the respect they receive—through hard work and dedication over many years of “playing the game.” ASHI has to “play the game,” too, if it wants to be welcomed and respected in state capitals across the country. ASHI cannot be a winner unless it is a player.

Legislators are people, too

Mr. Home Inspector’s experience was not unusual. Two members of the legislative committee had ties to other industries/professions. One was a Realtor; the other owned a plumbing business. This does not mean that these legislators were biased members of evil special interest groups.

All legislators will come with life experiences (believe me, you want them to have ‘real-world experience’) and their reactions to legislative proposals will be a reflection of those experiences. ASHI members should never fault a legislator for having some preconceived notions. It is our job as lobbyists to build on legislators’ life experiences and to teach them about home inspection. If legislators are naïve, that is our fault, not theirs.

And never expect legislators to have a complete understanding about a bill—any bill. They are exposed to hundreds each legislative session, covering a myriad of topics. It is not humanly possible to be an expert on all of these issues and the professions or industries that might be affected.

Yup—They were claiming their territory

Mr. Home Inspector’s description of the testimony of the builders and the Realtors was absolutely perfect. These guys were claiming their territory and it should not be a surprise. Keep in mind, in his state (and in far too many states), ASHI is the interloper. We are invading unknown territory, which often means we will be chased off a couple times before ASHI sees a victory. But victory comes—to those who don’t get scared off, and those who don’t give up.