Will Ris, American Airlines’ primary voice on Capitol Hill for over 30 years, has announced his retirement at the end of 2015. His employer may not yet realize it, but he will be missed greatly.
There are a lot of great people who are employed as lobbyists for airlines and aviation interests. It is a job requirement for these positions that they are experts in all aspects of the aviation business (a list which would run hundreds of pages). Their skill set must include comprehending-
- the complex rules of Congress (the substantive procedures and the unwritten social conventions),
- how the regulatory review machine works, the politics (philosophy, constituent needs, administration agenda, the invisible networks which intertwine between and among Congress, the White House and the Departments) which define how things get done, and
- the broader context of all contested issues (international, environmental, antitrust, the economy).
These substantive skills are not the end of the job task analysis for Senior Vice President of Government Affairs job. To be effective in convincing a Member of Congress, that a position which AA supports, should be adopted with regard to some pending action, the lobbyist must be able to state the case succinctly, i.e. explain the salient policy points in support/opposed to a proposal in less than 5 minutes and without a hint of aviation jargon or acronyms. Moreover, he or she must have the ability to repeat that spiel over and over without losing the enthusiasm which is needed to convey the strength of the company’s position.
Washington has more hidden connections than the catacombs of Rome. The digging up those networks and discovering of how and where the power links exist requires almost as much effort as the creation of the underground in Italy’s iconic city. It also requires a lot of time to create the credibility needed to operate in these powerful tunnels.
Another DC phenomenon is that a Member of Congress is the top of an iceberg. To be effective, one must meet with the elected representative, but knowing the key staffer on the Member’s personal staff and the Committee is equally important. Being able to keep both appropriately briefed, without offending either, is a consummate skill of a Hill professional.
Another capability, which needs to be mentioned, is the ability to attend almost daily fund raisers. These events occur both early in the morning and late night; the lobbyist’s day is long. Again, the person attending the 3rd or 4th meet and greet of the day must be able to smile and appear ecstatic to be there.
This is a textbook definition of what a SVP of Government Affairs must be able to do in order to effectively move the company’s agenda. It is also a recitation of Will Ris’ knowledge and talents. Mr. Ris’ fingerprints can be found on every major aviation policy decision made in the Federal City even before he joined American. His command of all of the ideal lobbyist’s attributes is unequalled today and may not be replicated after December, 2015.
Will, good luck to you in your next chapter of life. An able American advocate will be missed by all.