Monday, September 28, 2009

Why "Reading the Bill" Won't Work

I've blogged before about the impracticality of the "read the bill" movement. Many groups have joined together to demand that members of Congress read every bill that is introduced. Their argument is that lawmakers shouldn't vote to pass legislation they haven't read. This makes perfect sense, on its face.

Recently, the Post editorialized on this issue, pointing out the impracticalities of actually reading all 10,000 bills that are introduced in a two year Congressional session. Members of Congress and their staff would be doing nothing but reading whereas' and wherefore's until their eyes crossed.

I responded to the Post editorial agreeing with the impracticality argument. But in my opinion, the editors missed the main point, which is that reading the bill and understanding what the bill does are two entirely different things. You can read my response, which was printed in the Post on Saturday, here.

My main point is that the bill language isn't what legislators need to spend time reading in order to understand a legislative initiative. If they need to read anything, it's the biased and unbiased summaries from wide varieties of groups and individuals on their opinions of what the bill language might do in real life.

And beyond reading, they need to meet with constituents, knowledgeable citizens, subject matter experts, representatives of those "horrible" special interests like the AARP or the HSUS (tongue firmly in cheek) and even a lobbyist or two to have a complete understanding of how the bill language might impact the people they represent. Then, they need to balance the perspectives of all these groups and make decisions based on what they think will be best for their constituency.

The good news is that this is exactly what the vast majority of legislators and their staff try do every single day. So maybe this situation isn't quite as dire as some might have you believe.

Monday, September 21, 2009

News Flash: Politicians Like to Self-Promote

A recent article in the Washington Post titled "Tweeting Their Own Horns" reports on a recent study from the University of Maryland on Congressional use of the micro-blogging service Twitter.

I know this will shock you: it turns out that politicians generally use Twitter to promote themselves. The researchers reviewed tweets through February, 2009 as well as postings in June, 2009 and August, 2009 to make comparisons about when Congress is in session versus out. According to the lead researcher:

"Twitter by its nature is a very self-absorbed service," said Jennifer Golbeck, lead researcher and assistant professor in the university's College of Information Studies. "Politicians are very self-important people."

Now, I think it's appropriate to cut our elected leaders a little slack. I'll bet that if you checked out most of the Twitter feeds out there, you'd find that the majority of users are focused on "self-promotion" versus "world peace."

While you can point to a few uses of Twitter as an interactive tool for promoting dialogue between parties, for the most part it is still being used by EVERYONE, not just politicians, as a mechanism for promoting a business, a cause or one's own daily routine. I'll confess that I use it ( to promote my particular cause (umm, and the services I provide around that cause) of making everyone on the planet better advocates. See how cleverly I snuck that in?

I guess my main point is that while the study does make for interesting reading, I hope people won't be using it as ammunition to feel even more cynical about our elected officials than we already do. As with all new technologies, it will take time to move Twitter from a promotional tool to an interactive tool. It's probably a good idea to think of Twitter as an evolution, not a revolution.

And if you're looking for ways to be part of the evolution, check out the TweetCongress site, which is working to connect citizens with their legislators in whole, new 140 character or less ways.

Friday, September 04, 2009

The "Emily Litella" Approach to Advocacy Strikes Again

Last month I wrote a little about the "Emily Litella" approach to advocacy (generational alert -- if you don't know who Emily Litella is, go immediately to this video of her from SNL titled "violins on television.") The Litella-syndrome happens when someone gets all outraged about a policy issue and calls their legislators all in a huff -- only to find out that they misunderstood some fundamental aspect of the proposal. Having been on the receiving end of some of these calls myself, their response is usually something along the lines of "Oh. That's different then. Well, never mind."

I am reminded of Emily Litella when reading this article in the Washington Post on where the "Death Panels" rumor got started. For those living under a rock for the last month, this is the idea that health care proposals put forth by Democrats would establish death panels for rationing care to the elderly. Couple interesting points about the death panel phenomenon:
  • The hospital in Wisconsin where all this started is actually seen as a leader in identifying ways for people to have a very specific say about their own end-of-life issues, INSTEAD of having other people decide for them when they are incapacitated. Kind of sounds like the opposite of death panels to me.
  • Allowing healthy people to be more clear about their wishes also helps save money. According to the article, there's about $40 billion a year spent on Medicare services in the last month of the recipient's life. Apparently, letting people have directives about how much effort they want put in to their end-of-life experience results in lower costs. I thought the Republicans were for reduced spending?
  • Finally, and most important, Sarah Palin was, as has been widely reported, the one who "raised the alarm" about the death panels. Seriously? We're taking our national health care advice from the woman who reads "... all [the newspapers] -- any of them that have been in front of me over the years" (as she told Katie Couric)
When I'm at the grocery store, the National Enquirer is in front of me, but I don't usually believe what it has to say about federal policy (it's usually right on about aliens, though).
Palin-bashing aside (sorry, it's so easy), the point is that the death panel argument is one of the most aggregious examples of the Litella syndrome I've seen in the last 10 years. I call on all effective advocates to resist the urge to get all fired up about something they know nothing about -- and instead take some time to learn about the issues. THEN get fired up.

Tuesday, September 01, 2009

The downside of policy success

In "Environmentalists Slow to Adjust in Climate Debate" David Farenthold of the Washington Post makes an interesting point about persistence, or the lack of it, within the environmental community when it comes to grassroots advocacy on climate issues.

While industry groups have continued in "campaign-mode" to highlight concerns about climate change legislation, even friends of the environmental community admit that they "slacked off" after the House passed climate reform legislation earlier this year, which may have been a mistake. As anyone can tell you, it's relatively easy to get a Democratically-controlled House to pass legislation associated with Democratic agenda items. It's the Senate where the real fun will begin during September, and it's the Senate where industry groups have focused their time and effort -- and money.

In fact, some might argue that money is the real difference between the two sides. Reason suggests that industry-types might have more money to pour into a campaign against climate change legislation and it is true that their investments have led to a series of television ads and much glitzier rallies and campaign "whistle-stops" than the ennviornmental community.

But the article points to another important element missing in the environmental communities' message -- passion. While the environmental coalition is running ads and holding events, they tend to be lower key, less enthusiastic and, thankfully, less shrill than what the industry is puting forth.

Perhaps the trajectory of this debate points to a political truism: it's easier to be passionate about something you're scared of than something you're for. And since passion for your cause is a critical component for persistence, it's no wonder that as the left gets more of what it wants from government (in health care, environmental protection and the like), they likewise become more complacent.

It's the downside of success that we all should be aware of, regardless of whether we're talking policy change, business success or plain old life!