Monday, July 31, 2006

Do Nothing Congress

If current trends continue, this Congress will have the distinction of meeting less and having fewer voting days in decades. In fact, it will have fewer voting dates than the infamous "do nothing" Congress of 1948. With the House gone until after Labor Day and the Senate leaving soon, members are focusing more on connecting with their districts than with passing legislative initiatives.

But is this really such a terrible or unexpected thing? On the one hand, it would be nice to see Congress a little further along with its appropriations bills (none have made it all the way through the process, and the fiscal year ends September 30th). On the other hand, those who attack Congress for its lack of progress on legislation fail to recognize one important fact -- "passing laws" is actually not the "end-all, be-all" of being a member of Congress. Congressional sessions should not be judged on how much legislation was actually passed -- in many cases, members of Congress play a more important role in halting legislation than in moving it forward.

Consider the wide array of activities in which members of Congress and their staff are involved besides passing legislation:

* Meeting with Constituents to hear their views, both in Washington DC and the District
* Working to bring federal dollars and projects to their districts
* Working with federal agencies on questions about implementation of laws
* Shedding light on domestic and international problems and concerns (through the hearing process)
* Responding to the thousands of requests for information that flood into their offices
* Learning about complex societal issues, such as emergency preparedness or homeland security
* Publicly stating their views on issues that matter to their constituents

In addition to all this, they must spend a great deal of time outside the office campaigning for re-election! As such, it's no wonder, and perhaps not such a tragedy, that Congress hasn't passed a lot of legislation.

If you want to read more about the "do-nothing" Congress, check out this Washington Post article.

Sunday, July 23, 2006

MP3 of "Government By the People" -- This Week Only

I have just finished an MP3 version of my book, "Government by the People: How to Communicate with Congress" I am making it available for free to blog readers for one week at:


After that, I will be posting for sale at a price comparable with the hard copy price.

If you do download the MP3, please give me feedback on any errors you find in the recording. I know there are a few small "stumbles", let me know if those are highly irritating. I'm also interested in hearing about glitches, overlaps, weird cut-offs, etc.

Thanks, and happy listening!

Stephanie Vance

Thursday, July 20, 2006

National Journal Article on E-mail Logic Problems

OK, I just have to say that it seems weird to type the words "Congress" and "logic" in the same sentence :)

At any rate, in an article titled "Experts See Lawmaker Mismanagement of E-mail", National Journal reporter Winter Casey noted that "Congress needs to find ways to more effectively deal with citizens via Internet communications, a group of political technology experts said Wednesday." As noted in the story, according to Steven Clift, board chairman of, the fundamental issue is if Congress can "listen to its citizens in the digital era. . . Will they be overwhelmed and befuddled by e-mail or be respectful of it?" Alan Rosenblatt, executive director of the Internet Advocacy Center, was also quoted, arguing that typing your personal information to send an e-mail should be enough; there is no problem big enough that requires a quiz.

And, surprise, surprise... "Stephanie Vance from Advocacy Associates said citizens should not be discouraged from sending form letters but added that "advocacy groups need to educate their citizens" about the effectiveness of their various communications."

The interesting back story here is that this whole discussion happened over a very informal luncheon at the Rayburn Cafeteria. Steven Clift, a leader in the e-democracy world, was in DC and suggested that we all get together to chat. Well, the National Journal reporter was there for an interview with him and he graciously invited the rest of us to join in the discussion!

I hope I didn't have spinach in my teeth.

For more about Steven Clift, visit For more on Alan Rosenblatt, visit

Wednesday, July 19, 2006

The Tour de France

I have been sucked in to the Tour de France lately (blame my husband) and have been struck with its similarity to how things get done on Capitol Hill. I'm not talking just about the scandals (although both have certainly had their share). It's just interesting that it's such a strategic race -- as much about physical stamina as it is about smarts. Following are just a few interesting correlations:
  • You don't have to win a stage to win the whole thing -- it seems counter-intuitive that you could come in second or third or fifth EVERY DAY and still win the overall race. Yet that's the case with the Tour de France and it's often the case in trying to get legislative initiatives through the Congress. You don't have to get your initiative through every single step (from subcommittee to the House and Senate floor and conference committees), rather, you just have to get it in at key points and keep it there.
  • It doesn't matter that people are ahead of you -- what matters is WHO is ahead of you and where they are in relation to your time -- Floyd Landis (the current leader) isn't going to get concerned if some yahoo who is 28 minutes back in the overall classification gets 6 minutes ahead. He knows that he'll still keep the yellow jersey and will also keep some of his strength for assaults on subsequent days if he doesn't chase. But when someone who is closer to him in time gets ahead, that's a problem. And he's prepared to put the hammer down at that point.
  • Even if you don't win the whole race there are other prizes along the way -- the dizzying array of jerseys (white, green and, umm, polka dot?) make it possible for riders to specialize in sprinting or riding mountains or just being a good young rider (I wish I could specialize in being young). Likewise, in dealing with legislation, it is important to look for those "alternative victories" along the way -- especially since overall success is so difficult.
I'll be exploring these and other similarities between the tour and the advocacy process in my next newsletter. Stay tuned.

Monday, July 17, 2006

What Congress Really Wants

The Congressional Management Foundation has put together an interesting newsletter with lessons learned from the whole "Congress e-mail logic problem" situation. They make the very good point that both sides of the debate (both the pro and anti logic problem camps) feel strongly that they are promoting democracy. And, as CMF points out, both have something useful to say. For Congress, the point is that by reducing the number of "point and click" letters, where it's not clear how seriously the sender feels about the subject, they are allowing the more serious and concerned citizens to have their voices heard. Grassroots advocates (and, of course, the businesses that make money promoting advocacy) feel that the many new tools available have allowed more people to join in the debate, even if at a low-level.

The main lesson that comes out of all of this is that, one way or another, whether we like it or not, Congress is continuing to decrease the attention it pays to form letters. Frankly, it never paid much attention to them anyway -- it's just more obvious now. Grassroots organizations need to understand and adapt to this phenomenon if they are going to be successful in swaying elected officials. Form letters have their place, but that place is often not about making a difference in the political process. Generally, form letters do far more to help the organization learn about its membership than anything else.

To see the CMF's Newsletter, go to

Friday, July 14, 2006

Dogbert the Lobbyist

Scott Adams, the comic strip creator of "Dilbert" fame, has been running a series featuring Dogbert as a corporate lobbyist. You will not be surprised to know that the series is, well, not very flattering toward the political process (or dogs, for that matter). You can see some of the latest strips at

Believe me, I'm not going to get all righteous here and try to make the case that not everyone who lobbies is the next Jack Abramoff. What disturbs me is that many people reading these cartoons (and laughing) will think to themselves "gee, that really is true." It's perpetuating a negative stereotype which, I suppose, is part of the job of comic strip writers. If you find yourself inclined to giggle (as I do), remember that while this is humorous, the real story of lobbying in our nation's capitol is not reflected in Adams' panels. Frankly, Dogbert the lobbyist would be kicked out of any Congressman's office on his four furry paws...

Thursday, July 13, 2006

Using Wiki for Advocacy

Although they've been around for years (think Wikipedia, the site where users can add to the general knowledge base on a topic), wiki's are finally gaining some respect, and can have tremendous application in the advocacy arena. The "command and control" approach to the Internet is making way for a process where users can more interactively engage in the content on the sites they use. Essentially, any site that has a Wiki plug in allows users to edit the content they see on that page. So, for example, if you want interactive feedback on a topic or to collaborate on a project, Wiki allows you to do so quickly and easily over the web. Like Blogs, there are a number of locations where you can set up a free Wiki site. Here's a listing from Wikipedia

Consider how you can use this entirely cool and free software to engage advocates in the process of understanding and sharing their views on the issues you're working on!

Wednesday, July 12, 2006

Congressional E-mail Folly

Some of you may have heard about recent efforts by Congress to address the influx of e-mail communications coming in to their offices by requiring that people solve simple math and logic problems before their e-mail will go through. If you haven't, you can read about it at

This will stymie, at least in the near term, many of the cyber-advocacy tools upon which associations and businesses rely. I'm not a fan of form letters -- personal, thoughtful communications are far more likely to receive the attention of your elected officials. I agree that people sending e-mails should demonstrate that they are constituents. However, I believe that requiring them to also solve math and logic problems (even simple ones) before sending an e-mail serves no legitimate purpose. True, it will shift out the truly concerned citizens from those that may be practicing "point and click" democracy (i.e., just sending form letters from a website). Nevertheless, as much as I prefer personal communications, I do not believe that constituents should be forced into sending only these types of communications.

I wrote a letter to the Washington Post on this issue, which was actually published!

Here's the link