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!