Monday, April 07, 2008

Are you satisfied with what you're getting for your taxes?

So I visited with my accountant today and, well, it wasn't all that pleasant. No offense to my accountant, but I just really don't like tax time. No matter how much I try I never seem to be emotionally prepared for seeing all the numbers.

The biggest number, of course, is the amount of money I've paid in taxes. I wouldn't mind seeing that ridiculously large amount if I felt like it was going toward things I care about.

To be fair, some of the funds are, in my opinion, well invested. I like helping older and low-income individuals pay for health care. I like having roads and I'm a fan of having drinkable water and garbage pickup. I also like public broadcasting, libraries, homeless shelters and a whole bunch of other stuff. To me, these are worthwhile investments.

The problem, though, is that some of the items on my "worthwhile investments" list are on other people's "I can't believe we're spending money on that" list and vis-versa. That's why we have a system of government that gives individual citizens the right to petition for one set of investments and complain about the other.

Essentially, we have an important tool at our disposal to make our opinions heard -- loud and clear -- about how we want our hard earned dollars spent. It's called citizen advocacy. So, if you're feeling down about your taxes, take a moment to look at how those funds are being spent, and then let your elected officials know what's right or wrong with that scenario.

For resources on how tax dollars are spent, check out the National Priorities Project interactive tax chart, where you can enter in the specific amount you paid in taxes and get a chart of how that funding broke down. I think you'll be surprised. I know I was!

Saturday, April 05, 2008

Wouldn't It Be Nice If Congress Were ONLY a Virtual World?

On April 1st, the House Commerce Committee held what has been touted as one of the first real, live Congressional hearings in a virtual world. This begs the question "what is real?" Apparently, online virtual worlds like Second Life are becoming significant enough players to capture the attention of elected officials and their staff, according to a recent Washington Post article on the subject.

Citizens of Second Life (only a few of the "saner" ones, not the ones that have a tendency to fly around, it should be noted), sat in on the hearing. A few of the members of Congress even had their own avatars as part of the fun. Some recognized the irony of members of Congress being reflected as "avatars" (as in "gods"), although fortunately most of the members condescended to admit that they weren't ACTUALLY gods, lest any of us be confused.

Serious discussion topics included both the benefits and downside virtual worlds. But I think the real issue here is this: Who's scared that Congress is the "real world" in this scenario. I am, a little bit.

Wednesday, April 02, 2008

Where Are They Now: Tracking Down Former Members and Staff

If you spent several years working as a mechanic and then decided to become a car designer, wouldn’t it be a good idea to use your expertise as a person who used to fix the cars in helping your former employer build better ones?

Or, if you spent several years working as a magazine writer and then went to work for a company as a media specialist, wouldn’t it be smart to use your connections in the magazine industry to help get stories placed about your new employer?

Or how about this – if you spent several years as an admissions officer at a school, would a viable future job choice be helping college bound students through the application process?

In all of these circumstances, people have built a level of understanding on how a process works and then applied that understanding for their future employers. It’s called earning a living.

Why, then, is it so unforgivable for former members of Congress and their staff to earn a living post-Congress working as lobbyists? And yet that seems to be the gist of a new Sunlight Foundation project called “Where Are They Now.” The project is tracking down the post-Congress job information of former members and staff to see if they have filed any lobbying registrations.

Now, before we get all personal here, let me clarify that I am not a lobbyist. I have no clients that pay me to present their views to Congress. I actually train others how to effective citizen lobbyists. This may be even worse, you be the judge. In full disclosure, I will say that I have contributed to Congressional campaigns, and you can read all about that at
That said, I know what you’re thinking. You’re thinking that members of Congress and former staff shouldn’t become lobbyists because they have special access to and expertise in the Congressional system – access and expertise that no one else has.

Umm, isn’t that what we’re supposed to do in developing our careers? Learn about something, build contacts, get really good at it and then earn money? Obviously, I agree 100% that people should be prevented from peddling that influence in a dishonest way (through bribery, trickery or other nefarious schemes). But should they be shunned and/or ridiculed for honest efforts to influence Congress on policy issues they care about?

Critics might suggest that the Sunlight Foundation is simply shedding light on this phenomenon and, to be honest, I have no problem with this in theory. However, the context in which it has been presented, complete with the tongue-in-cheek references to “jailed” members of Congress makes me think that this is more than a simple effort to keep people informed.

If we simply want to keep people informed, why not set up a true “where are they now” process that does not focus exclusively on lobbying registrations? Sure, that would be useful information, but I’d also like to know if there are former members of Congress and/or their staff that are doing other great things. My point is that in shedding light on just this one aspect of “where are they now”, the Sunlight Foundation may be doing even more harm to the public’s perception of Congress than good.

Tuesday, April 01, 2008

New Report on Congressional Communications

New Report on Congress

I want to be sure tipsheet readers know about a new report on Congress that runs counter to everything I’ve ever said about effective advocacy. Among other things, this report suggests that:

  • Members of Congress pay most attention to the people that live outside their district, not to their constituents.
  • Citizens should never send personal letters. Petitions and form communications work just fine.
  • The staff people for elected officials actually like it when you treat them badly and suggest that you’re disappointed to be meeting with or talking to “just them.”

    April Fools!

OK, there is no such report. In fact, all the evidence suggests the contrary. But, in honor of April Fools day I thought I’d imagine what the world of advocacy would be like if we turned some of the fundamental rules on their head. For more, check out the April Fool's edition of the tipsheet.