It’s mid-morning on a recent Thursday in February, and Andrew Goldberg, senior director of federal relations for the American Institute of Architects, is walking the halls of the Rayburn House Office Building on Capitol Hill, pinning down congressional staff to talk about pending legislation and tweeting updates to AIA followers. He’s also keeping tabs on multiple meetings, including one held by the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, which has been drafting a $260 billion highway spending bill that is expected to eliminate about $1 billion in preservation, bike, pedestrian, and school transportation-safety programs. Communities have long used money from these programs to help rehabilitate historic structures and design pedestrian paths around schools, encouraging broader economic development and local job growth.
Roxanne Blackwell, director of federal government affairs at the American Society of Landscape Architects (ASLA), is watching a webcast of the committee meeting from her office in D.C.’s Chinatown. Both Goldberg and Blackwell, in conjuction with Transportation for America, a coalition of housing, development, transportation, health, and other organizations, had spent all week leading up to the highway bill vote sending emails and making phone calls to the 59 lawmakers and staff serving on the transportation committee. They have also encouraged their organizations’ thousands of members to contact these lawmakers, rallying support for an amendment that would restore the $1 billion in funding that would benefit architects. At least five ASLA members who have have lived in Congressional districts represented by lawmakers on the committee called to express their support for the amendment, Blackwell says.
In the late morning, however, Blackwell and Goldberg learn that their efforts have failed—the committee members defeat the amendment by just two votes. At 3 a.m. the following day, the committee votes to pass the bill without the $1 billion in funding, setting it up for a possible vote in the House of Representatives in the next several weeks.
Goldberg and Blackwell aren’t giving up, however. “These programs are wildly popular in communities,” Blackwell says. “Our hope is that we can influence and convince members of the entire House of Representatives that it was a mistake not to include them in the legislation.” Adds Goldberg, the amendment “lost by only two votes, which is better than I thought. So we just need to do a bit more work.” For Goldberg, the transportation bill is one of a dozen or so pieces of pending legislation that he’s working to help pass, amend, or block, from a House bill that could increase taxes on small businesses to Senate legislation that promotes energy-efficient codes for buildings. “We weren’t expecting a lot to happen right now, but all of a sudden, everything is popping,” he says. “It’s random. Sometimes you go for months working on something and not a lot happens, and then all of a sudden, everything piles up.”
A Profession in Crisis
Things are indeed piling up for the profession at the moment, thanks to the flailing economy. According to a study released in January by the Georgetown University Center on Education and the Workforce, the unemployment rate among recent graduates of architecture programs is 13.9 percent, compared to the national average of 8.9 percent for graduates with bachelor’s degrees. The construction industry, which represented about 9 percent of the country’s gross domestic product in 2006—near the height of the real estate boom—has since shrunk to about 5 percent, according to the Bureau of Economic Analysis. Architecture, without question, is in the midst of an epic crisis.
Architects have long had a compelling story to share with lawmakers. They are almost as popular as teachers, according to public polls, and they’ve lobbied for smart development and sustainable-building practices that make communities better places to live. “Architects are natural problem solvers that play such an important role in community planning,” Goldberg says. “So we have to be part of the conversation, because the saying is, if you aren’t at the table [in Washington], then you are the menu.”
Now, because of the current challenges confronting the profession, lobbying has never been more important for architects, or their priorities more closely tied to the overall health of the economy. Indeed, architecture can help generate well-paying U.S.-based jobs: For every $1 billion invested in the design and construction industry, about 28,400 jobs are created, according to a 2007 George Mason University study.
In early March, about 1,000 architects will come to the nation’s capital as part of the AIA’s annual Grassroots campaign and meet with hundreds of lawmakers to talk about “jobs, jobs, jobs,” says Russell Davidson, AIA, the managing partner at Mt. Kisco, N.Y.–based Kaeyer, Garment & Davidson Architects & Engineers. Davidson is the newly elected national vice president of AIA and a member of the organization’s Board Advocacy Committee.
Moreover, lobbying has assumed new importance because of recent shifts in the marketplace, says Mark Casso, president of the Construction Industry Round Table, a group of about 100 CEOs in the architecture and construction industry. Federal work historically has represented about 20 percent of the design and construction industry market, but following the economic downtown, it has grown to about 35 percent. Because “more of our work is in the public arena,” Casso says, the industry finds itself more and more in the “political arena fighting for dollars like everyone else.”
Yet the industry spends relatively little money on lobbying compared to behemoths such as the healthcare sector, which shelled out $499.9 million last year, according to the Center for Responsive Politics, a nonprofit campaign finance and lobbying group. By comparison, the construction industry as a whole spent $48.3 million, and the AIA and the ASLA together spent $258,540. “Architects don’t have a seat [at the national policy table] compared to the legal profession or medical profession,” says Dennis Findley, an architect who ran for Congress in Virginia in 2010. “None of our issues rise to that level,” he says. “But they should.”
Amid this epic moment of crisis and the escalating political battles of an election year, how can architects exert greater influence on Capitol Hill?
The Rise of the Architecture Lobby
A decade ago, the architecture lobby held little sway. In 2002, Rep. Earl Blumenauer, D-Ore., sat down with former Rep. Richard Swett, D-N.H., the only architect elected to Congress in the 20th century. Swett was writing a book, Leadership by Design, about the history of architects as community leaders and why they needed to be more involved in public policy. Blumenauer told Swett that “the AIA is very quiet on the Hill. There is no attempt to maximize any proximity. As a sitting member, in seven years, I’ve spoken to the AIA once.”
Today, Blumenauer says, the AIA has become more active and sophisticated with its lobbying. He now speaks at AIA local and state events several times a year, and sees architects engaged more often on Capitol Hill. “The board of the AIA is increasingly made up of people who understand that their intersection with public policy leads to better public policy,” he says. “Their grassroots conferences have become steadily more refined, and their staff and board seem to be markedly strengthened.”
Burdett Loomis, a professor of politics at the University of Kansas and author of Guide to Interest Groups and Lobbying in the United States, says that while it is very hard to measure the influence of an organization in Washington, every successful lobby employs certain key tactics. These include hiring internal lobbyists and contract lobbyists to build relationships with lawmakers; engaging individual members to call lawmakers and meet with them in their home districts; working with other groups to create coalitions and political action committees (PACs); and donating to candidates that support a group’s issues.
The AIA now uses all of these tactics, employing seven federal lobbyists on its staff as well as the lobbying firm K&L Gates—one of the largest lobbying firms in Washington—to help it with strategy and connections on the Hill. Michael Evans, who leads the AIA effort for K&L Gates, is a former chief counsel for the Senate Finance Committee and the Senate Committee on Environment and Public Works, two important committees that work on tax and environmental sustainability policies that are vital to AIA’s policy agenda. Seven other lobbyists at K&L Gates also work on AIA issues, according to lobbying documents filed with the Senate.
The AIA’s political action committee, ArchiPAC, donates to lawmakers based on their support for the group’s issues and goals. About 1.5 percent of the AIA’s membership donates to the PAC, and that number is growing, according to Goldberg. So far, ArchiPAC has collected $126,608 in donations for the 2012 election cycle and has given away about $69,000 to congressional candidates and federal political committees, according to the AIA and federal election records. ASLA, by comparison, does not have a PAC, because the organization wants “to remain nonpartisan and nonpolitical,” Blackwell says.
Both AIA and ASLA encourage members of their organizations to weigh in on public policy matters by sending letters to lawmakers. Each group uses social media and email alerts to keep members apprised of pending bills in Congress and to help build support for legislation. “Our members are our best lobbyists, not us,” Goldberg says. “We guide things and provide information.”
The AIA and ASLA also have forged relationships with other sectors of the construction industry. On the Thursday in February after Goldberg and Blackwell monitored the House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee hearing, the two lobbyists also listened in on a briefing hosted by the High-Performance Building Coalition Congressional Caucus, a coalition of 180 associations and corporations in the design and construction industry, including the AIA. Members of the caucus also include BASF, Honeywell, the American Gas Association, the Edison Electric Institute, and the National Association of Realtors.