Monday, May 17, 2010

Never Too Young to Start Advocating

I attended a climate change forum a couple of weeks ago hosted by Climate One to discuss how younger people are taking action to cut carbon emissions in their communities. The students that were participating had unique approaches to how they were taking on climate change in their community but they all understood the power of advocacy and raising awareness for their issue. Advocacy can take many forms from doing student projects that raise awareness for their issue to talking to the decision makers in their community about making changes that will help reduce their carbon footprint. Take a look at how these students are making a difference in their communities through their innovative advocacy efforts.

Thursday, May 13, 2010

Grassroots Code of Ethics: Round 2

A couple months ago, I posted information about a grassroots advocacy code of ethics that I and several colleagues in the community are developing, in concert with anyone who wants to be involved. A recent column in Roll Call, authored by Amy Showalter and Kelton Rhoads expresses their point of view. The piece, titled "Mis-Trust Unavoidable in Grassroots Efforts" suggests that a grassroots code of ethics that stifles free speech won't help either the industry or civic discourse.

I couldn't agree more, which was why I was completely mystified by their arguments. While they have suggested a more nefarious motive for our work, those developing the code are interested only in stopping egregious practices that make everyone look bad, such as sending fake letters to Capitol Hill -- a subject of recent Congressional hearings -- or creating coordinated campaigns where citizens make death threats to legislators in townhall meetings.

Because we have a difference of opinion on the basic point of whether mistrust is avoidable or not, and because there were some factual errors in the column, several leaders in the grassroots advocacy community joined together to co-author a response. The letter (which you can access here) was signed by myself, Anne Darconte (in her role as a long-time leader on these issues), Les Francis of the Washington Media Group, and Christopher Arterton in his role as a Professor of Political Management at GW.

In addition, our friends at the Congressional Management Foundation's new Partnership for a More Perfect Union crafted a response based on their unique perspective and scientific research on this issue. You can read their response here.

I hope you'll take a moment to review ALL the arguments and, if you feel so inclined, to comment on the code itself at All perspectives, whether complimentary or not are very welcome.

Tuesday, May 04, 2010

To Paraphrase Stephen Colbert: I AM The Government -- And So Are YOU!

Over the weekend President Obama delivered a commencement speech at the University of Michigan in Ann Arbor in which he, in the words of reporters covering the story, offered a "spirited defense of government."

Personally, I think that headline doesn't tell the whole story. Duh. It's a headline. Of course it's not going to tell the whole story. What I mean, though, is that Obama didn't just offer what some people are saying was a spirited defense of his government, or this particular iteration of government. No. He gave a spirited defense of the very concept of government -- of the idea that "...there are some things we can only do together, as one nation."

If you think about it, the people who formed our current system of government had reason to be pretty skeptical of the idea that a centralized authority would be anything but a big bunch of trouble. They may even, dare I say it, have been more skeptical than tea party advocates are today. As you may recall, our founding fathers had just fought a war to get rid of a monarchy they weren't all that fond of.

Yet they went ahead and formed this suspicious organization called a "federal government" anyway and, one can argue, this bold act marked the turning point of our history as a nation. Why did they do it? Because they recognized that together -- even when we disagree with each other -- we're stronger than when we're divided.

Now, I'm not saying that we shouldn't remain vigilant or that we shouldn't question whether "government" is doing the right thing. But we should remember that this "government" thing we're often frustrated with is us -- it's you, it's me, it's your neighbor and it's your cranky Uncle Bob who you never agree with but you tolerate for the sake of family unity.

If you haven't reviewed the speech, I hope you'll take a minute to do so -- and I hope it will make people on BOTH sides of the aisle think about how they present their heartfelt, passionate views that, believe it or not, other people will have the audacity to disagree with.

As citizens, I think we have a responsibility to recognize that we're all in this together. And we should ask ourselves, as Obama asked the Michigan class of 2010, "[a]t a moment when our challenges seem so big and our politics seem so small, how will you keep our democracy alive and vibrant?"

To quote the kids these days, IMHO we can all keep our democracy alive and vibrant by continuing to express our views. At the same time, we must remember that others have every right to disagree with us. And, as the founding fathers discovered, somewhere in the middle is a solution everyone can agree with -- or at least equally hate.

Wednesday, April 28, 2010

And Now for What Citizens Can Do...

I've been writing this week on the recent Pew Study about the fact that most citizens do not trust their government. And, like Sisyphus and his impossible task, I'm having the temerity to suggest improvements. Yesterday I made some suggestions for politicians. Today I have some ideas for citizens.

Know the institution: When I was on the hill we received numerous letters about foreign aid (yes, I know I'm dating myself: for those who don't remember letters they were communications sent on paper through an institution called the U.S. Post Office). The writers were almost uniformly outraged at the huge percentage of the federal budget spent on foreign aid. In reality, the percentage was ½ of 1%. Granted, these writers probably didn't want any money spent on foreign aid, but under no construction could this be viewed as a "huge percentage of the Federal budget."

Or what about the constituents that I talked to who owned a deli in our district? They were moving their business and wanted our office to arrange to move several federal agency offices so that they would have better foot traffic at lunch. Not really a reasonable ask of a Congressional office.

Clearly these are extreme examples, but what about something simple? The people who used to call our office after a vote to express their extreme frustration with us could have been far more effective if they'd called BEFORE the vote. We still might not have agreed with them, but it's always best to tell Congress what you think before they take action.

From knowing what Congress can actually do for you to knowing your issue, citizens can help enhance trust by knowing what they're talking about.

Know how to advocate effectively: Your communications must be relevant, personalized, thoughtful and specific if you want to have a prayer of being taken seriously. Sure. The Constitution and the general idea of a democracy give you every right to fire off an angry e-mail to every member of Congress you can think of, and if it makes you feel better go ahead. But in a representative system, it's the officials that specifically represent the area where you live or work who really care what you think.

If you want to advocate in support of an appropriation for a specific program, your best place to start is with the elected official who represents the area where you live, work or serve people. If that person happens to serve on the appropriations committee great, if not, it's still best to communicate with your own legislator and ask him or her to reach out to the appropriators. If you aren't sure who they are, go to to find out.

Once you've gotten passed the relevancy hurdle, you need to think about how your communication can rise to the top of the thousands that are received in a Congressional office everyday. You do that by being specific about what you want, being thoughtful in your arguments and, most important, by telling a personal story. Personalized communications have far more influence with a legislator than form communications. Period.

Understand the difference between "being heard" and "being agreed with": In many cases the problem is not that your opinion isn't heard. Rather, it's that either a) the legislator doesn't really agree with you or b) the legislator doesn't have an opinion on your issue. So yelling louder probably isn't going to be effective.

If they don't agree with you, you might be able to turn things around. See if there are some "baby steps" you can take to help them understand the issue better and, perhaps, change their mind. These might include srranging site visits or attending townhall meetings. If that doesn't work, it's time, on your end, to decide whether this is a deal breaker and vote accordingly in the next election.

If it's simply that they don't have an opinion yet, targeted follow-up that addresses the legislator's concerns and connects the issue to the people he or she represents will be more effective than more yelling.

Monday, April 26, 2010

Building Trust Between Citizens and Their Government

Following up on last week's blog posting regarding the Pew Study with the shocking findings that citizens don't trust their legislators, today's post is the first in a two part series on what politicians and citizens can do to improve the situation. Today I'm focusing on politicans. Tomorrow I'll focus on citizens.

So, without further ado -- three things politicans can do to move themselves up on the trust ladder.
  1. Improve constituent communications: Time and time again I have advocates tell me "I wrote a letter to my Congressman about issue X and I got a form letter back about totally-unrelated issue Y." No wonder citizens feel that politicians aren't listening! However, rather than assuming politicians and their staff are sitting around eating bon-bons all day and sending random letters, let's look at the reasons behind why this happens. In fact, in most cases, what it boils down to is a resource problem. Did you know that since the advent of the Internet, constituent communications have at least quadrupled? Yes, you read that right. And yet the resources available to deal with those communications have remained virtually unchanged. Members of the House, for example, have the same number of staff as they had before the Internet. While Congress has certainly become more efficient in managing these communications, the panacea of "increase efficiency" can go only so far. At some point, it's time to get more people and systems in place to manage the problem.Although it would be wildly unpopular, members of Congress should use their own advocacy skills to make the case for additional funding, and then apply those funds to solving this urgent issue.
  2. Be clear about why you're in Congress: Every elected official has his or her own reason for enduring the grinding 24/7 schedule and constant stream of abuse that, these days, is the hallmark of a Congressional career. 99.9% of the time it's not "because I like to be powerful." For the most part, it's because they want to achieve some specific policy goal or because they want to help their legislative district or state. Members of Congress need to be clear ? to themselves and to their constituents ? what their proactive agenda is, even in the midst of partisan bickering and infighting.
  3. Stop adding fuel to the fire: Hopefully it goes without saying, but for heaven's sake politicians should please stop any unethical, shading or just plain disgusting dealings that make the whole institution look bad. Former Rep. Massa, I'm looking at you.
Tomorrow -- what can you do to make a difference? Read the blog to find out!

Friday, April 23, 2010

Can You Trust Your Legislators?

The answer, according to a recent Pew Research Survey, is a resounding "no." In fact, just 22% of respondents believed that they could trust government in Washington all or most of the time.

This saddens the Advocacy Guru for a number of reasons, the most of important of which is that effective advocacy requires an environment of mutual trust. In other words, to achieve your policy goals, your legislators must trust that you are giving them good information. At the same time, you must trust that your legislators can and will do what you identify as "the right thing," especially after you've made your case

But how is this trust possible when a majority of Americans (52%) believe that the political system can work fine, it's the members of Congress that are the problem? Or when at least 76% believe that elected officials in Washington 1) care only about their careers; 2) are influenced by special interests; 3) are unwilling to compromise, and 4) are profligate and out-of-touch?

There's a glimmer of hope, though, in the findings. That glimmer is the fact that most Americans (56%) find themselves to be more frustrated with government than they are actually angry. This to me is a good thing because, frankly, there's something I can do about frustration.

So, how can we fix this? Next week I'll post information on what politicians and citizens can do to improve the level of trust. So stay tuned! In the meantime, if you're interested in this topic, check out the new Partnership for a More Perfect Union. They might have some answers!

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Happy Tax Day! Why Americans Should LOVE Paying Their Taxes

Ah, April 15 th . A day when the thoughts of many Americans are focused, like a laser, on the money we personally spend for the "public good" (or the "public bad", depending on your perspective).

Whether you're grumbling over your morning tea or joining a tea party protest today, if you're not skipping merrily down to the post office today all excited about the investments you get to make in our nation's infrastructure just repeat to yourself one (or all) of the following mantras. You might not wind up skipping, but hopefully you'll feel a little better.

I'm Investing in My Country

Do you like roads? Parks? Mail? The job our military does to keep us safe? Health care for the poor and elderly? Food stamps? Public broadcasting? Whatever your particular interest is, some portion of your tax dollars are going toward that project. If you're curious as to where your tax dollars go, check out the National Priorities Project and their interactive tax chart . Here you can enter the amount of taxes you actually paid (if it doesn't make you cry) and determine where those dollars went. Then, as you're filling out your 1040, pretend to yourself that you're making a donation to the programs you love best. You can even include that in the "memo" portion of the check - believe me, IRS workers have seen it all. That might ease the pain a little.

I'm Investing in Myself
If you're not convinced by the broader benefits to society that paying your taxes brings, think about it from a purely selfish perspective. Every minute of every day you are impacted positively by government actions. Think about it. Did you wake up this morning? If you did and heard the clock radio alarm or watched television, you were affected by FCC regulation of the radio spectrum. Did you take a shower? Clean water regulations (hopefully). Have some coffee? Trade tariffs on coffee beans. With cream? Dairy price supports. Use the restroom? You better hope there are combined sewer overflow regulations in your area. Drive on a road? Well, you get the point.

If you want to test this out, pick a day when you'll stop every few moments to write down how government impacts you (you can even use Twitter, if you're so inclined). Then, imagine that your personal tax dollars are bringing you these benefits. In fact, I'll be doing this through my Twitter feed today, so sign up to follow AdvocacyGuru and see what I come up with!

I'll Gain Access to Potential Perks

You know the old adage "you've got to spend money to make money?" Well, that definitely applies in the tax world. This year, thanks to the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act and other recently passed bills, Americans can claim all kinds of credits on their returns. The catch is, you've got to file to get the cash.

For example, if you bought a car or a house, credits may be coming your way. There are more education and energy efficiency credits as well. So take a careful look at all the existing and new deductions and credits. You may be surprised at what you'll gain!

I'll Avoid Public Humiliation and Additional Fees (and possible Jail Time)
Famed mobster Al Capone wasn't sent to jail for the many violent crimes he allegedly committed. No, what brought him down was tax evasion. And, although they certainly shouldn't be equated with mobsters, tax problems have dashed the career hopes of everyone from cabinet nominees like Tom Daschle to the coffee shop owner here in DC who just didn't pay his local taxes for about ten years. With penalties and fees, his tax bill topped $400,000 - and now he's out of business.

Whether you're concerned about how your tax situation will be addressed during your nomination hearing, or just want to avoid losing your business, it's important to stay on top of your tax obligations. In fact, many employers now look at how individuals manage their finances as one important hiring criterion. You don't want to lose your dream job because you just couldn't bring yourself to write that check on April 15 th .

I Have the Right (and Responsibility) to Advocate on Government Spending
"But wait," you're thinking. "The main reason I don't want to pay my taxes is because government spends my money on things I don't like." Sure, it's all very well and good to imagine that you're spending money ONLY on those government programs that make sense to you. But as a practical matter, that isn't really the case, is it?

Well, here's the most wonderful thing about our tax system and our overall system of government. If you don't like where your tax dollars are being spent, you have a right and a responsibility to let your elected officials know! For example, if you paid $5,000 in taxes, you'll find out that $1,470 went to the military and just over $1,000 went to health services. For some people those ratios are just fine: others believe that more should be going toward non-military programs. Wherever you stand on the spectrum, let your elected officials know what you think we should be investing in as a nation. How cab you do that? Here are four simple steps:
  1. First, make sure you know what you're talking about. Don't rant about the huge portion of the budget being spent on foreign aid, for example. It's ½ of 1 percent. Try a site like to be sure you've got the latest information.
  2. Second, be clear about what you want. If you want a specific program cut, say so. If you want a specific tax increased or decreased, be explicit. Don't simply say "we need to pay less in taxes."
  3. Third, be able to answer the question "why should this legislator listen to me?" You'll be far more compelling and persuasive if you are a constituent, if you represent constituents or if what you want connects with policy issues the lawmaker is interested in.
  4. Finally, connect your "ask" to your personal story. How would what your asking for you benefit you and other constituents?
You can find your legislators and e-mail them directly through a site like .
When All Else Fails...
If things get too stressful just try to be thankful that at least you've got some income to pay taxes on, right? There are too many Americans struggling to make ends meet (especially in this economic climate). So sit back and relax with a glass of wine - and who knows? That Cabernet might not have made it to your glass without some sort of taxpayer investment.

Thursday, April 01, 2010

New Report on Congress Disproving Everything I've Ever Said

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.
Imagine, if you will, a world where...
  • Constituency Doesn't Matter: Everyone and their mother would want to meet with Speaker Pelosi, other members of the leadership and the chairs of important Committees. What would the remaining members of Congress do? Seriously, though, the principle of constituency helps us identify which elected officials are supposed to care what we think - even if it doesn't always feel like they do.
The point: Consider the "power of constituency" as one of your important leveraging tools - and learn how to use it effectively.
  • Form Communications Really Work: The world where members of Congress pay attention to form letters is the same world where you pay attention to junk mail - it simply doesn't exist. If you think about it, what would you rather have: Members of Congress that can be swayed by a handful of identical communications or a system where personal communications, a little hard work and perseverance actually get more attention?
The point: If you can take an extra five or ten minutes to personalize your communications you will gain far more attention than those who aren't willing to take the extra step. And isn't that a good thing?
  • Staff People Enjoy Being Treated as Unimportant Underlings: Ah, yes. They love it when the people they're meeting with say "but I thought I'd get to meet with the Congressman. I don't want to meet with 'just you'." They also like it when advocates go "over their head" to the "really important people in the office."
The point: Treat the staff as you would any other person that can help you achieve a goal. They can become your strongest ally in getting what you want out of the Congressional office.
  • Members of Congress Stopped Arguing All the Time and "Got Stuff Done": Right now, Congress passes only about 4% of the 10,000 bills that are introduced. But in our imaginary world, they might get a much higher percentage passed, including bills like the "Military Toy Replica Act" or the "Nanotechnology in the Schools Act" (are we for? Against? I'm not sure).
The point: Our system of government is not designed for speed and efficiency for moving things through. It's designed for caution and deliberation. Sure it's frustrating when it's YOUR program that's being stopped, but at least be thankful that a lot of other crazy stuff isn't being passed (I know, I know, my friends in the military toy world are going to come after me on this one.)
Now get out there and enjoy your April Fools Day. You can start by reading about the Top 100 April Fool's Hoaxes of all time

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

Is Government Broken?

I know you'll be shocked to hear that most Americans (86%) think so, according to a recent poll noted in this CNN piece.

Now, before we blame "government" for being broken, I think we should take a step back and look at how we as citizens contribute to the problem. Sure, there are a lot of things that could be fixed about what "those people in Washington, DC" are doing. But there's also a lot that can be fixed about what citizens around the country are doing (or not doing) when it comes to our democracy.

This isn't a popular perspective, obviously. But I think we should think positively about what we as a citizenry can do to improve our own involvement with and understanding of government.

So, what can we do? Well, here's a start:

First, I think that a big part of the problem with government is that citizens have an inaccurate perception of what it's supposed to do. It's actually supposed to be completely and totally inefficient. In fact, the Founding Fathers set up a system designed to encourage argument and dissent. They did a fabulous job. So, citizens really need to lower their expectations of what's possible from our government. Imagine running a business with 535 people on your board of directors. How much would you get done? And yet we think government is broken if Congress and the Administration can't solve major problems like climate change, health care reform and unemployment all in the course of a year.

Second, unfortunately numerous studies and my own experiences indicate that people do not know basic things about even the most representative of the branches of government, the Congress. Frankly, it's OK not to know these things if you're not really interested in the policy process. But it's not OK to complain about government being broken without considering our own lack of engagement and understanding. When a majority of Americans can't name their elected representatives in Congress, that's a problem -- and may, in fact, be one of the reasons why the system isn't working as well as we'd like.

We also need to stop sending mixed messages to our elected representatives. Many people say they don't want government to spend money on any programs -- until it's a program that they personally are interested in. We all need to recognize that everyone has different interests and the role of government is to do its best to amalgamate those interests into one cohesive whole. This takes an incredible amount of compromise and a really long time.

The good news in all this is that citizens actually have an amazing power to make a difference. They just need to know how to do it effectively. I've seen, time and time again, skeptical people who strongly believe they can't be heard be amazingly transformed after visiting with their elected representatives. Once they know a little about the process and their own role in it, they really begin to understand how they can influence policy. And that, to me, suggests that there's hope for government: even when it's at its most frustrating.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

An Advocacy Plan for NO MORE SNOW

Greetings from Washington, DC, where we have snow drifts of well over four feet, traffic jams of well over 4 miles and patience at an all time low. Seriously. Imagine living in a city where you haven't had mail for a week, where you take your life in your hands walking on the sidewalks and where you have to dig your way in to and out of any parking spot you're lucky enough to find (OK, I don't have to dig -- my husband does that -- but you get the point).

And I understand from the weather forecasters that it's not really over yet. There will likely be more snow before spring arrives.

Well, I've decided I won't participate in any more snow. I'm done with it. No more for me. To achieve that goal, I am implementing a four-step "no More Snow" advocacy plan based on the process outlined in my book Citizens in Action (like how I got the book in?). So, here it is!

Know What You Want: Well, I know what I don't want. I don't want any more snow. But that sounds a little too obstructionist to me -- a little too, dare I say it, "tea partyesque." So I'll say that I'm for clear skies, sunshine and 72 degree temperatures. That's my starting point. I can compromise from there but the issue of snow is absolutely non-negotiable.

Know Who You're Talking To: This is a little more difficult. Who is in charge of the snow? A higher being? The Republicans in Congress? The Obama Administration? I'm not really sure, but I'm tempted to blame the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). According to their website, "[o]ur reach goes from the surface of the sun to the depths of the ocean floor as we work to keep citizens informed of the changing environment around them." That sounds pretty comprehensive, so I'll go with that.

Know How to Talk to Them: I like to use what I call the "SPIT" method of message development. It's not pretty, but it gets the job done. S is for SPECIFIC. I SPECIFICALLY do not want any more snow. P is for PERSONAL. Telling a personal story is essential and I plan to develop a touching anecdote around the travails of my poor dog, Ozzie, in having to use the great outdoors as a restroom when it's all iced over. I is for INFORMATIVE. I'm in the process of developing compelling graphs, charts and one-pagers outlining the record breaking snowfall we've had this year. I will clearly and logically explain why continued snow is not an option. T is for Trustworthy. I'm not going to exaggerate or lie about the amount of snow. I don't need to. I will become the go to resource for reliable information on this critical issue.

Know How to Follow-Up: Now, I'm not stupid. I know that my first missive in to NOAA probably won't get the immediate response I want. Who knows? I might even be written off as a crazy person (hard to believe, but it's possible). So I'm going to start thinking now about how to follow up effectively. I think I'll invite NOAA staff to my neighborhood to see our unplowed streets, mounds of snow on roofs and poor, suffering puppies. Then I'll ask someone at NOAA to write an article for my newsletter, perhaps even ask a legislator on the appropriations committee to submit a statement to the Congressional Record about their support for the no more snow movement. And, of course, I'll post information to Facebook, Twitter and all the social networks to keep the momentum moving.

So, there it is. My four step plan. DC residents, are you in?

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

Nature's Filibuster

We have lots of names for what's going on in D.C. right now -- snowpocalypse, snowmageddon, snowverkill. As I've been sitting here at home, trying to entertain myself with mail from last week and watching my husband dig snow out of our skylight before it crashes into our bathroom, I've been wondering why this feeling of being trapped and, dare I say it, "gridlocked" seems familiar...

Now, I'm not as clever as the people that come up with the names for storms (thanks Fox News, for "Blizzard of 2010", that took quite a lot of creativity), but I can say what this series of storms reminds me of.

It reminds me of the U.S. Senate.

How's that now? I'm glad you asked. I've got three main reasons.
  • First, there's the wind gusts of 65 miles per hour, which some Senators reach on a daily basis.
  • Second, the white out conditions in DC (literally can't see my backyard) seem to reflect the shocking lack of diversity in the U.S. Senate.
  • Third, and most important, there's the filibuster rule, which allows any Senator, through the mere threat that he or she might debate a legislative initiative to death, to bring the business of the Senate to a grinding halt. Without the 60 votes needed to invoke "cloture" (i.e., the ability to limit debate), Democrats in the Senate will be even more unable to move their legislative initiatives through the process. Kind of like how no one in DC can venture past their front yard.
Of course, some people think that's a good thing (the lack of legislative progress, I mean, not the being trapped in our house), and perhaps this storm is evidence that Mother Nature agrees. On the other hand, maybe this is her way of saying "Enough. Everyone needs a time out."

I suggest that everyone in the political world take a minute to take advantage of our time out, get away from the partisanship and sniping, retire to our respective corners for a little while and see if we can find a better way to move forward. This better way will need to depend less on the "I'll hold my breath until you let me have what I want" approach of the Republicans or the "You'll do what I say because I say so" approach of the Democrats. Perhaps we can even be civil to one another.

Or perhaps I've just been trapped inside for too long.

Friday, February 05, 2010

Is this really a "do nothing" Congress?

A very productive Congress, despite what the approval ratings say, is the provocative title of a recent Washington Post column from Norman Ornstein, a leading Congressional expert. He argues that this Congress, despite polls suggesting that 58% of Americans consider it below average or one of the worst ever, is actually one of the most productive ever.

That's right, you read that correctly. According to Ornstein (who, believe me, knows what he's talking about):

"[t]his Democratic Congress is on a path to become one of the most productive since the Great Society 89th Congress in 1965-66, and Obama already has the most legislative success of any modern president -- and that includes Ronald Reagan and Lyndon Johnson."

If that doesn't seem right to you, consider the massive investments that occurred through the Recovery Act in our nation's schools, infrastructure and energy and environmental programs, including green technology. Then Congress passed children's health insurance, a law to regulate tobacco and a credit card holder's bill of rights, any one of which would be considered a major accomplishment. And all this within the course of the first year -- a legislative record that would put many 2-year sessions to shame.

Clearly, there's a disconnect between what Congress does and how we perceive its activity. A part of the problem, in my opinion, is that we as citizens don't really understand what Congress is supposed to be doing. As an institution, Congress is not designed to PASS legislation: it is designed to fight and argue and deliberate about legislation. Chaos and inefficiency are supposed to rule in our legislative environments -- and, clearly, they do.

Effective advocates will spend some time learning about the institutions they are trying to influence. One great resource is "Congress and Its Members" by Davidson, Oleszek and Lee. Or, check out the resources on the Library of Congress' "Thomas" website.

Happy advocating!

Monday, February 01, 2010

The Budget is Coming! The Budget is Coming!

Today the Obama Administration is releasing its proposed Federal budget for FY2011, which begins October 1, 2010. Highlights include a "job creation" proposal that envisions small business tax cuts and new infrastructure investments designed to generate jobs. According to the release, the budget cuts over 100 programs, while also proposing a series of funding increases.

Now, before you get all enthusiastic about specific increases (or freaked out about specific cuts), remember that this is the first step in a very long process. The President makes his proposals -- and those proposals certainly reflect what he thinks government should focus on -- but Congress has to develop the spending and tax packages. Congress may decide to do very little of what the President suggests, or everything, or something in between.

The whole process is outlined in an interesting interactive chart on the Washington Post website. Yes, I'm playing fast and loose with the word "interesting." Be sure to have a strong cup of coffee before delving in to the details of the process.

If you're just interested in the general overview, highlights of the budget proposal include:

  • a freeze on discretionary spending and $20 billion in cuts to various programs
  • an increase in funding at the Department of Education by $2.9 billion or 6.2 percent.
  • a new $4 billion dollar National Infrastructure Innovation & Finance Fund to focus on infrastructure investments of national and regional significance
  • more than $6 billion in funding for clean energy technologies
  • the elimination of existing fossil fuel subsidies
  • an increase of $3.7 billion, or 6.4 percent, for civilian research and development
  • allowing the 2001 and 2003 tax cuts to expire only for those making more than $250,000 a year and reducing the rate at which these same households write-off itemized deductions
  • ending subsidies for oil, gas, and coal companies and closing other loopholes
  • a responsibility fee on the largest banks
  • a bipartisan, fiscal commission to look at a range of proposals and put forward a bipartisan recommendation to balance the budget excluding interest payments on the debt by 2015
Remember, the best way to preserve programs you're most interested in (or eliminate those you think are wasteful) is through advocacy. Frankly, the government is going to have no idea what is most helpful or harmful unless you share your views. So get out there and get advocating!

Friday, January 22, 2010

Ethical Lobbying: Really, it's Possible!

If you’re based in the Washington, DC area and you haven’t signed up for the January 27th forum on grassroots ethics being held by the George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, what are you waiting for? Take a minute to go to and get registered for this free event! Go ahead, I’ll wait.

OK, you may be thinking “but ethics sounds really boring: why would I want to go to that?” Well, there’s a whole host of reasons! You should attend if:
  1. you’re tired of snide comments about “all the corruption in Washington, DC” – and you want to be part of the solution.
  2. you want to network with others engaged in grassroots advocacy activities – we have sponsors from all walks of life!
  3. you want to learn more about techniques that work in grassroots advocacy – after all, what is most ethical is also most effective.
  4. you want to make your mother proud by learning more about honesty, transparency and all the things that make us good people.

At the event, we’ll be discussing a proposed grassroots advocacy code of ethics. You can see the code and comment on it when you register at This is your opportunity to shape these ideals for generations to come – so don’t delay. Register today!