Tuesday, March 03, 2015

How to Connect with Federal Agencies

If you are for or against certain regulations within pieces of legislation like The Affordable Care Act or the Food and Drug Act and want to advocate on those issues, you may think that you should ask your Members of Congress take steps to change the law. However, unless the legislation you care about is up for reauthorization, you’re not going to get very far by asking your Senators and Representative to change the way the law is enforced.  It’s actually federal agencies (for example, the FDA or the FCC) that are responsible for creating the federal regulations that enforce the laws passed by Congress. So if you want a regulation within a passed law to be changed, that falls within the appropriate federal agency’s jurisdiction.

The problem is that reaching out directly to federal agencies will not be incredibly influential on your part. This is because you’re not the one who puts the FCC commissioners in their jobs, and you’re not the one who helps directly finance the commissioner’s budget—Congress is. Congress sets the appropriations and approves the commissioners, so they’re going to be the ones who have the most influence. Since you, as a constituent, influence your legislators and since legislators influence federal agencies, the best course of action for you to take is to ask your Members of Congress to reach out to federal agencies on your behalf. Ask them to write a letter to the agency in regards to the particular regulation you want changed. If you have a question about a regulation, talk to the Legislative Correspondents in your Member’s office and they will kick that question over to the Congressional Relations Office of the appropriate agency. Follow up every couple of weeks until you get a response. The more you demonstrate that you’re interested in it (and the more polite you are about it), the more likely it is that you’ll get a response. 

-  Written by:  Kaytee Yakacki

Friday, February 27, 2015

Is it White and Gold? Or Black and Blue?

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ve probably seen the great “is-the-dress-white-and-gold-or-blue-and-black” controversy. Let me start by saying I have no definitive answer. I, like many of us here in Washington, DC, am not a scientist. What I find most interesting is the public’s response to what we all hopefully can agree is not the most critical question of our time. And what I’ve seen scares me a little. People are becoming intransigent, immovable, -- one might even say irrational -- in their opinions. And yet it’s clear that – hey – two people can see the same thing in different ways.

To paraphrase my colleague Nick Tobenkin (who’s not particularly concerned about the dress’ color), the fact that everyone has become so entrenched in their perspective explains a little about our political process. If we argue so vociferously about a dress, is it any wonder we can’t come to an agreement about the federal budget or immigration or health care? I think we should view this experience as evidence that people really do see the world in fundamentally different ways, both physically and mentally. And perhaps if we recognize that we can come to understand each other a little better.

As for me? When I woke up this morning to the barrage of increasingly angry Facebook posts, I took one look, decided the dress was white and gold and then wondered what all the broo-ha-ha was about. I saw no inkling of black and blue. But later today, after all the controversy and drama, I saw the picture again. It looked black and blue—so much so that I wondered who’d changed it. I’m going to take that as a sign of an open mind, willing to consider compromise. Or it could just be old age. But I’m going to stick with the former.

- Written by Stephanie Vance, Advocacy Guru at Advocacy Associates

Wednesday, February 25, 2015

Social Media: A Cautionary Tale

Raise your hand if you’ve ever posted something stupid online. A joke. A picture. A Facebook status update or comment… Or have you ever had anything you’ve posted be misinterpreted? My hand’s up, and I bet yours is too -- as is the hand of every member of Congress, I’m sure.

We all do it, and we sometimes get called out, whether fairly or not. A friend of mine posted this interesting New York Times piece about a woman whose life turned into a nightmare when she tweeted something she says she thought was satire, but others took seriously.  The person who publicly shamed her later apologized. But it was too late.  She’d already lost her job along with any credibility in her field.

This cautionary tale made me resolve to think more carefully about what I post online, as well as what I’m going to get outraged about. Sure, there are some easy ‘immediate outrage’ situations, especially in the political world. Anthony Weiner comes to mind. And there are plenty of people who repeatedly post hurtful, dreadful, personally degrading things. I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t point fingers where finger pointing is necessary and even valuable. And as public figures, politicians should be held to a higher standard.

But in some cases, especially when these tweets happen during heated political debates, people hit send before they think, and they regret it later. It doesn’t necessarily mean they are terrible people (yeah, some are). It means they made a mistake. And sometimes those mistakes aren’t even substantive. Sometimes it’s just something they thought was funny and no one else did.

My first boss in Washington, DC once told me ‘never say anything you wouldn’t want on the front page of the Washington Post.’ This has become even more important, and more difficult, in the social media age. If we want a more civilized political discourse, perhaps we can all give each other a break every once in a while. I promise to do so if you will too.

-Written by Stephanie Vance, Advocacy Guru

Wednesday, February 04, 2015

Congressional Offices DO Pay Attention to What You Post on Social Media!

In October 2014, the Congressional Management Foundation (CMF) released some polling information that provides shocking news about social media and its impact on legislative offices. At least I thought it was shocking, but maybe that’s because I’m old.

For the longest time, social media used to be a somewhat challenging way to get a Congressional office’s attention, mainly because it’s not ‘place-based.’ In other words, legislators and their staff have no way of knowing whether the people commenting on their blogs, Facebook pages, or Twitter accounts are constituents.  And since constituents rule when it comes to policy decisions, that meant that social media could go only so far in influencing outcomes.

Well, that’s apparently changing. The study suggests that the inability to separate constituent communications from those outside the district “doesn’t really matter much to lawmakers, who see social media more as a barometer of public opinion” (attributed to Brad Fitch, President and CEO of CMF). As with any advocacy campaign, though, the quality of the communications matter more than the quantity. Staffers can tell the difference between the mass tweets encouraged by an advocacy group and the ‘real deal.’ And when it comes to the real deal, a majority of offices polled said that even a single constituent commenting on their own was considered influential. Even in the social media world, one personalized communication can make a difference.

So find your legislators on Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, LinkedIn  -- whatever have you – and start commenting. Politely, please. 

- Written by Stephanie Vance, Advocacy Guru

Wednesday, January 21, 2015

State of the Union 2015 and Why It's Important

Last night, President Obama delivered his second-to-last State of the Union.  As you’re probably aware, the president delivers an address to Congress at the beginning of each new year detailing his perception of how life in America has been progressing and areas in which he sees room for improvement.  This speech precedes the release of the President’s formal budget proposal each year.

Watch the 2015 State of the Union here.
Read a transcript of the 2015 State of the Union here.
Watch the Republican Party’s official response to the State of the Union here.

In his speech, the President focused on what he termed “middle class economics.”  Essentially, this is the idea that if people work hard and are given equal opportunities, our economy thrives.  He addressed numerous issues including childcare, education, workers’ rights, energy and the environment, jobs, infrastructure, healthcare, veterans, race relations, and foreign policy.  He stressed the importance of compromise and overcoming partisan gridlock in Congress.

Yet, thinking about the context of last night’s speech, there are a few important factors to keep in mind.  First of all, Obama is now a lame duck president.  This means that he no longer has to worry about running for reelection, nor does he really need to concern himself with the politics surrounding midterm elections.  For this reason, he has little to lose politically based on the assertions he makes, so last night we saw him speak emphatically about his stance on some fairly divisive issues like immigration reform, health insurance, and Wall Street regulation.  He even threatened to veto legislation he believes would be a step backwards in these areas.   Furthermore, it’s important to keep in mind that Republicans took control of the House of Representatives last November, giving them control of both chambers of Congress.  The State of the Union is meant as a guide to give Congress a sense of the President’s priorities, but it is in no way legally binding.  Because Republicans now hold the majority, it is unlikely they will follow many of the recommendations he laid out.

This year, President Obama has projected February 2nd, 2015 as the date he will present his formal budget for funding federal programs to Congress.  Again, this budget is not legally binding and a republican Congress is unlikely to pay a great deal of attention to it when crafting legislation for appropriations.  It will, however, provide further insight into the Administration’s priorities for the President’s last two years in office, and you can expect many of those priorities to mirror the ones laid out in his speech last night.

So, you’re probably wondering why this really matters to you.  As an advocate, think about the issue or issues you care about.  Did Obama mention them in his speech last night?  Did he speak favorably about them?  Are they divisive issues?  Answering these questions will give you an idea of how you will need to talk to both democratic and republican Members of Congress about your issues.  While their individual stances will be more nuanced, it is likely that, at least on the surface, democrats will agree with the President’s agenda and Republicans will oppose it.  Understanding the state of our Union, as it stands, can help you craft your personal legislative advocacy plan for the final years of Obama’s presidency.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Communicating with the Capitol: Be Grateful

We've all been in situations where we've worked really hard on something and just want that hard work to be recognized, right?  I know that if I put a lot of time and effort into a project or an idea and it goes entirely unnoticed, I’ll find myself questioning why I worked so hard in the first place.

On the Hill, Members of Congress and their staff are constantly bombarded with requests from all sides, to the point where they can’t possibly meet everyone’s demands.  For this reason, if an office follows through on something you've been requesting, it’s incredibly important to make note of what they've done for you and thank them for it.  It may seem self-evident, but gratitude goes a long way with staff members who spend much of their day trying to assuage cranky and frustrated constituents.  Therefore, if an office takes the time to work with you on an issue, introduce a bill you’ve been advocating for, set up a hearing, or something similar, make sure you recognize the work they have done and show how much you appreciate their willingness to help.

Because of the somewhat constant stream of whining Hill staffers endure on a daily basis, I can pretty much guarantee that simply saying thank you and recognizing their hard work will go a long way.  They certainly won't question their decision to work with you and they will be that much more likely to help you out in the future!

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Communicating with the Capitol: How to Effectively Use Social Media

These days, it seems like success is often measured by followers on Twitter or likes on Facebook.  Seriously, how good do you feel when your tweet gets retweeted or someone comments on that picture you posted over the weekend?

Social media has been the cool new thing for a while now, and it seems like it’s here to stay.  When it comes to communicating with your representatives, it can provide unique opportunities in two primary ways.

1.   Staying up-to-date:  Social media is a great way to figure out where your Members of Congress are and what they’re up to.  They’ll post about events they’re attending, when they’ll be back in the state or district, and what issues they’re working on.  This is a great way to stay in the loop about the latest news and possibly even find out about events like town hall meetings you may want to attend.
2.   Voicing your opinion on a current and specific issue:  Because social media is constantly changing and updating to reflect trending topics, it’s a great way to voice your opinion on issues or legislation that are being discussed in real time.  Unlike letters, which need to go through a screening process that takes nearly two weeks, social media posts can reach the office instantly.  Many Congressional offices have added a staff position to their press team with the sole responsibility of monitoring and responding to social media.  With the creation of these positions, it means that offices will definitely see your comments, and if those comments are constructive and thoughtful, they will likely even respond.  Social media makes quick back-and-forth dialogue possible in a way that previous communication methods (letters, phone calls, and even emails) have not.  And while you may not always get a response, the more active you are on social media (in a polite, respectful, and thoughtful way!!), the more likely the staff will recognize your name and pay attention to what you have to say.

(Added bonus:  Several social media press staffers on the Hill have told me that their bosses, aka Members of Congress, love social media and are constantly looking at their own pages.  For other types of constituent correspondence, such as email and phone calls, they simply get briefings from staff about the important ones at the end of the week.  Thus, being an active social media poster makes it that much more likely your legislator will see your opinion first hand!).

One other tip!  As I’ve said before, Members of Congress want to hear from their constituents.  Social media makes it difficult to tell who is a constituent and who is not.  If you have any way of identifying yourself as a constituent (i.e. providing you town name or zip code in a post), the office is much more likely to pay attention to your post and even respond!

Social media is a great way to actively engage with legislators.  It in no way replaces the importance of emails and phone calls, but it can certainly enhance your engagement and provide effective alternatives for getting your voice heard in Congress!