The Washington Lobbyist’s Phrasebook

A citizen’s guide to deciphering the mumbo-jumbo of K Street.

One of the requirements of my decades-long career as a Capitol Hill staffer was to learn the peculiar jargon of paid issue advocates, or as they’re more commonly known, lobbyists. I quickly learned that their phrases are as obscure in their true meaning as Cockney rhyming slang or convict argot, where the objective is to hide rather than illuminate intent.

In the interest of transparency and an informed public, I have assembled some of the more commonly used phrases. This list is by no means exhaustive, since lobbyist language is constantly evolving as it absorbs catchphrases from popular culture and the military. No doubt the Trump presidency, with its always casual correspondence with empirical reality, will make a lasting contribution to the vocabulary of a profession already noted for its relaxed standards of truthfulness.

We just want a level playing field. This is the endlessly recurring Lord’s Prayer of lobbying phrases, even though no major field sports are played on a tilted surface. Translated, it means, “treat us the same as the competition, except when not treating us the same gives us an advantage.” This phrase should be engraved above the entrance of the Bryce Harlow Foundation.

We can’t have a one-size-fits-all policy. This phrase is also very common, even though it contradicts the first phrase. In this case, there are “special circumstances” that require the government to favor the claimant that the lobbyist represents.

They keep moving the goal posts on us. Another hoary sports metaphor implying unfair treatment of the lobbyist’s client. In reality, what it means is that the government procurement organization has the temerity to demand that the client meet the required cost, schedule, and performance criteria in the contract.

If you buy large quantities, you gain economies of scale and actually save money. A concept beloved by Home Shopping Network, it is also an argument lobbyists use to sell everything from pencils to the General Services administration to F-35s to the Pentagon. I actually heard a radio spot on Washington’s WTOP, a favorite advertising venue for military contractors, arguing that the Navy should buy three aircraft carriers at once—at roughly $10 billion each.

Don’t think of it as an expenditure, think of it as an investment in the future. If you’ve ever wondered why DoD spends $400 a gallon to move gasoline to Afghanistan, re-read this phrase.

Can’t afford to do it? We can’t afford not to do it. It sounds as if the lobbyist in question is behind on the payments on his vacation home at the same time he has to come up with the tuition for his offspring at Sidwell Friends.

It’s a win-win for all the stakeholders. This is true if you define the stakeholders to mean the executives and shareholders of the company the lobbyist represents. Taxpayers and end-users are not stakeholders.

We’re working to put ourselves out of business. Sure you are.

Issues. In keeping with the need for euphemism, there are no problems, let alone disasters. They’re all issues. This is probably borrowed from the military, where good news is a requirement. I once heard an Air Force general describe the test results of a missile that blew up three seconds after clearing the launch pad as “nominal.”

We need to educate Congress. Translation: squeeze corporate headquarters to get everybody to max out on their political contributions to the relevant committee chairman.

You don’t want to deny the American working man one of life’s little pleasures, do you? A phrase much employed by the National Beer Wholesalers Association, the Distilled Spirits Council, the Tobacco Institute, and Purdue Pharma, makers of OxyContin.

Our new prototype [FILL IN THE BLANK] will ensure that our men and women in uniform return home safely. Translation: you really didn’t expect us not to exploit patriotism for commercial gain, did you?

His Excellency is pro-American and a committed reformer. Translation: my client is a genocidal kleptocrat who has paid my firm seven figures to clean up his image in Washington and get him and his family off the sanctions list.

That’s old, outdated information or we’ve turned the corner on this program. A pair of phrases used to explain away why the V-22 Osprey keeps crashing, the F-35 still has multiple serious problems after spending $100 billion on it, or the Department of Homeland Security headquarters is over budget and behind schedule. In reality, the programs in question have turned so many corners that they might as well be lost in the Labyrinth of Knossos.

Mike Lofgren

Mike Lofgren is a former career congressional staff member who served on the House and Senate budget committees. His latest book is The Deep State: The Fall of the Constitution and the Rise of a Shadow Government.