Thursday, December 15, 2011

Today in U.S. History, The Bill of Rights was Ratified

December 15 1791, the Bill of Rights was ratified and became an important part of our nation’s highest document, the United States Constitution. The Bill of Rights was an essential part of a compromise during the drafting of the constitution that if left off, several states and delegates would have refused to sign or ratify the Constitution.
The impacts of the first ten amendments are impressed on us every day. We are taught these rights and their implications in history class from elementary school to college. The INS citizenship test includes several questions regarding the Bill of Rights. Nations around the world built their Constitutions and Bills of Rights using the United States as an example. Many of the issues in today’s politics are rooted in the belief that one or more of these basic rights are under attack. Debates regarding the recently passed defense reauthorization bill that some people charge as a violation of the 5th and 6th amendments or the markup of the controversial Stop Online Piracy Act and violation of the 1st amendment (free speech).
We are lucky to live in a country where these rights exist and tough conversations and debates can happen openly and nonviolently. As an advocate for your cause or organization, you are taking full advantage of the rights our founding fathers fought for and wanted to be used. Be proud and keep advocating.

Wednesday, December 07, 2011

Tweets Now Archived at Library of Congress


Here on our blog, we talk a lot about how important Social Media is to any person or organization’s advocacy campaign. With this in mind, I found an interesting article yesterday that announced that Twitter and The Library of Congress have signed an agreement that EVERY PUBLIC TWEET EVER SENT will be archived in the Library’s historical record. The only tweets to not be archived are those marked private by the user.

This agreement between Twitter and the Library of Congress will obviously have strong implications. First, every public tweet your organization ever sends out will now be on record. Conversely, every public tweet Congresspersons, Senators, and Candidates send will also be on permanent record. For this reason, the carelessness some people,organizations, and politicians have with tweets will be even more costly in the future. Second, once the archive has been built up, we might have the capability to research twitter trends to track public opinion on certain issues. This could be a real game changer.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Keep that Winter Chill Away with the Flames of Passion (For Advocacy)!

We’re nearing the end of the year, temperatures will soon drop to below freezing, and you might be ready to take off your advocacy cap, throw on a Snuggie, and hibernate until Spring rolls around. But don’t give in to this temptation, because this is actually a very important time for your advocacy movement. Here are a few things you can do in December to ramp up your advocacy efforts.

  •         Gear up for next year. It’s time to create an advocacy agenda for 2012. Take a look back at what you accomplished this year and decide where you want to be by the end of next year. Do you want to focus on increasing your advocate base? Making them more active? Getting legislation passed? Pick one or two main areas for improvement and build a plan around achieving your new goals. Consider what relevant legislative battles could potentially come up in 2012 and decide how you want to tailor your advocacy in the context of November elections. Take the time to ask your members for feedback and ask them what tools would help them be better advocates next year.


  •        Meet with Members back in the district. At some point in December your Members of Congress will be back in their districts. Ask your legislators to do a site visit or hold a meeting with you in one of their district offices. This is a great opportunity to show your legislators why your industry or cause is important to their constituents. If you can’t get a meeting with the Member, take some time to meet with their district office staff members. Building these relationships now will be beneficial to you down the line when the 2013 budget battle begins in February (that is, if they ever resolve the 2012 budget battle..)


Keep up the good work and you’ll be better prepared for the upcoming legislative year. Once you’ve done this, then you can treat yourself to some eggnog, toss on that Snuggie, and enjoy the Holidays knowing you were a good little advocate this year. 

Thursday, December 01, 2011

Top Models and Advocacy

One of my many guilty pleasures (in addition to Star Trek – see an earlier blog posting) is watching America’s Next Top Model. For the uninitiated, ANTM features very beautiful people doing beautiful things and taking beautiful pictures in beautiful places. This season, the models are developing a “brand” beyond simply being beautiful. These brands are generally associated with one word, like “free” or “classy.”

How does this relate to advocacy? I promise it does, just stick with me here. I’ve noticed that some of the models are much better than others at finding a brand that really reflects their personality. One of them, for example, is “fun” – and she’s certainly fun (maybe not my definition of fun, but fun none-the-less). Another is “creepy.” She’s creepy. Really creepy. There are vampires involved. These models tend to win branding-oriented challenges because they are crystal clear on who they are and what they’re about.

The least successful models, on the other hand, have picked brands that really don’t reflect their personalities. The model who chose “free” for example, is one of the most rigid people I’ve seen (and I’m getting that through a television screen, so it must be pretty bad).

This rule about being clear about who you are and what you want applies to advocacy as well. In order to succeed, you must be perfectly honest with yourself about the strengths and weaknesses of your advocacy argument and how you want to present it to others. In addition, you must feel an authentic enthusiasm for your cause. It must fit you like a glove or, using our analogy, a couture dress

Tuesday, November 29, 2011

The Needs of the Many Outweigh the Needs of the Few

If you’re a trekkie, you know that Spock quoted this phrase (I don’t think he invented it) in Star Trek II: Wrath of Khan. Yes, I’m a trekkie. However, while this perspective might be true in Star Trek, it’s not the case when it comes to effective advocacy. Sometimes, the needs of the few outweigh the needs of the many.

In Washington, DC the difference between a good cause and a special interest is simple: you agree with the policy perspective of a good cause and the other side is always represented by one of those horrible special interests. In truth, everyone has a special interest and hence everyone IS a special interest. It’s just that your special interest may be diametrically opposed to another’s. Or, more likely, others may not be convinced that your interest is in the best interest of everyone else. It’s not. That’s why it’s a special interest. If it were good for everyone it would be a common interest.

The appropriations process best reflects this phenomenon. Many, many groups compete for funds for their favorite programs, whether it’s research dollars for a certain disease over others, infrastructure capital for roads versus public transportation or housing assistance for low income individuals versus overall urban development funds. Now, sure, many items that receive funding seem pretty far-fetched in terms of the use of taxpayer dollars. We’ve all heard of the infamous bridge to nowhere. But remember, one man’s pork is another man’s bacon.

I recognize that citizens are frustrated because members of Congress sometimes vote in the interests of their district or state as opposed to the overall public good. But, frankly, that’s their job. Opposing a program that is clearly in the best interests of the area they represent on the grounds that it’s not good for the country is not only politically risky – it’s also not in keeping with their job description. And, believe me, people get pretty cranky about that.

In my opinion, we must all give up the idea that every special interest is bad or unworthy because it doesn’t coincide with everyone else. Perhaps more important, you must recognize that other people may have good intentions, even when they disagree with you. As advocates, your job is to promote your special interest, without vilifying the interests of others, in adherence to the principles of honesty, integrity and ethics by which we all should live (or at least that’s what my mom says).

Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Advocacy Tips: Keep Up the Spirit of Giving Thanks

Tomorrow is Thanksgiving, or, as I like to call it, “Fatty Pants Day.” That means it’s time to give thanks for all those things you take for granted on a daily basis, like a good pair of stretchy pants (and I suppose your family, friends, a roof over your head ... ). As you’re making your list of things to be thankful for (I’m not the only one that actually writes out a physical list, right?), don’t forget to include your Members of Congress.

Okay, maybe politics is the last thing you want to be thinking about on Turkey Day, but there’s an important lesson here. Advocates spend most of their time urging their legislators to take action on important issues (as they should), but you can get so caught up in the “ask” that you forget to appreciate what your Congressman might have already done to support your cause. Maybe in the past they voted with your issue or made a statement in support of your organization. When you’re building a relationship with a Member of Congress and their staff, “thank you” can go a long way. Just as you expect them to understand and appreciate the good work your organization is doing, you need to in turn recognize and thank them for their work on your issue, even if they aren’t one of the biggest champions of your cause. If the congressional office knows you took the time to learn their history on the issues, they will be more willing to return the favor, and that’s an important part of building a relationship with that Member.

I officially pardon you from your tireless advocacy endeavors for tomorrow, but once you wake up from your tryptophan coma and the holiday is over, remember to start thanking your legislators!

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Debt "Supercommittee" is hitting a deadlock dangerously close to their deadline.

Next week is the deadline for the Joint Select Committee on Deficit Reduction to come up with a plan to reduce the federal deficit by $1.2 trillion over the next ten years. After a week or two of hopeful momentum on reaching a deal, including proposals from the two parties that only differ by $100 billion on taxes, negotiations have stalled once again. Formal legislation must be introduced by November 21st and voted on by November 23rd.

The main points of contention between the Republicans and Democrats on the committee are changes to Medicare and tax revenue increases. Last week Democrats said they would be willing to go as low as $401 billion in new revenue, while Republicans indicated the highest they were willing to go up to is about $300 billion. They differ on the types of tax reform that would generate this revenue. This week we are hearing more bickering than negotiation, more blame game than end game.

While it is unclear whether the committee will be able to reach a deal in time, all hope is not lost. It certainly wouldn’t be the first deal struck at the last possible minute this year—the very Budget Control Act that created this “Supercommittee” and raised the deficit ceiling was passed just hours before the U.S. government would have defaulted on its borrowing authority. Congress also narrowly avoided a government shutdown back in April when they couldn’t agree on how to fund the remainder of Fiscal Year 2011. 

Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Did You Vote Today?

Today is Election Day!

If some of you responded with “… What? Seriously?” don’t feel too bad. This is an off-year election mostly comprised of mayoral elections and ballot measures (there are only 4 states holding state-level legislative elections and only 2 states holding gubernatorial elections). The most exciting coverage of the day is related to some of the more contentious ballot measures, such as a vote in Ohio on a measure that restricts the collective bargaining rights of unions and whether the state of Mississippi will essentially outlaw abortions entirely by passing a measure to define a fertilized egg as a person.

While only a select few issues are getting lots of national attention, there are plenty more being voted on today that will have an impact at the state and local levels. This reminded me that it’s extremely important to advocate for local issues as well as national. A lot of us tend to focus on the “big picture” and forget that sometimes the best strategy is to build your way up from the bottom. Fighting for issues that are important to you at the local level not only directly affects the people in your community, but victories can also give you sway at the national level. If you can go to your Members of Congress and say “Look, people supported this and passed this legislation in your community, and see how much good it did,” your persuasive arguments become less theory-based and more evidence-based. And if there’s anything legislators love, it’s actual evidence of something working. It makes their job a lot easier when fighting for legislation if they can offer up specific examples of how that policy or program is benefiting their constituents.

If your efforts are entirely focused on national policies, consider adding this strategy into your advocacy arsenal. It will probably add a lot to your workload (Who doesn't love more work?), but it can be well worth it. 

Shocking New Information: Electorate Disappointed with Government

Over the weekend, an article in the Washington Post pointed out that the next Presidential election is just one year away and, get this, Americans are disappointed in the current performance of our government. Yes, I know you turn to this blog for the latest and greatest news. In fact, with record unemployment and job disapproval ratings, Obama faces the most difficult re-election challenge of any incumbent president for the last two decades. Fifty-three percent of Americans disapprove of the job he is doing overall, and 61% disapprove of the job he is doing on the economy.

In general, you'd probably imagine that the other side of the aisle feel pretty good about these numbers. However, a couple other statistics jumped out at me. First, 50% of respondents agreed with the statement that Obama is making a good faith effort to deal with the nation's problems, but the Republicans in Congress are playing politics. That compares to 37% (for the comparable questions) for the first President Bush at around the same time in his campaign for re-election. Americans blame the Republicans in Congress more than Obama for the state of the country. Almost 60% of respondents are likely to not automatically vote for their current member of Congress and, instead, look around for another option. By a slight margin, more Americans want the Democrats in control of Congress after the next election.

Perhaps most disturbing, aside from what the White House or Congress is doing, seventy-four percent of Americans think that things in our country have gotten pretty seriously off track. I'm always a little skeptical about that question because I'm not sure of these "things" of which they speak, but I do know that's not a good number (you can read current polling results here).

The main message from the polls are, of course, that voters aren't really all that happy with what's going on in the country and, sadly, I see that more and more people feel like they can't do anything about it. Here's the thing, though -- you CAN do something about it. You can find my checklist for effective advocacy here, as well as some articles on effective advocacy here. Or join my advocate chat hour at 2:00pm eastern on Wednesday November 9th. Just go to http://www.join.me/ and type “advocacyguru” (no quotes) in the join box. Then click on the bubble to chat. It’s all free. Seriously, I want to help you feel better about government, or at least know your voice can be heard.

Friday, November 04, 2011

We all enjoy a little drama in our lives, but keep it separate from your advocacy.

The months leading up to a Presidential race are always rife with controversy and scandal. A little financial frivolousness here, a little sexual harassment there … there always seems to be plenty to go around. If there is one lesson a person running for public office learns quickly, it’s that your past can come back to haunt you.

Well, the same goes for any grassroots advocacy campaign. Like any business’ or individual’s venture to gain support from the masses, it’s extremely important to maintain a clean track record. And for those of you thinking that a little controversy can be good because it equals free publicity, cut it out. That may work for celebrities, but it will not advance your advocacy initiatives.

Take ACORN for example. The Association of Community Organizations for Reform Now was one of the largest anti-poverty groups in the nation (until it filed for bankruptcy last year), working to improve working and living conditions for low-income Americans since 1970. While they achieved many victories at the local, state, and national levels, that is unfortunately not the first thing that comes to mind for the average American. Instead, the first words that pop up are usually “voter registration fraud,” which ACORN was accused of during the 2008 Presidential campaign. The aftermath that occurred as a result of this controversy inevitably contributed to their downfall.

Now this is an extreme case—it received so much media attention because it was wrapped around the Presidential race. But it’s still an important lesson for any grassroots organization, no matter the size and scale. A scandal may not mean bankruptcy is in your future, but it could cause you to lose supporters and diminish your ability to create policy change. If you stay true to your cause and never waiver from your morals, you can build and maintain a truly strong movement.

Okay, I know that last part was a little cheesy and fortune cookie-ish … but it’s true!

Wednesday, November 02, 2011

The 2012 Senate Calendar has been Released!

Last Thursday, the House Majority leader released the 2012 calendar for the House of Representatives. Yesterday, The Senate majority leaders released the 2012 Senate calendar.

Now that both the House and the Senate calendars are available, you organization can decide which days to would be most effective to have a Lobby Day.

Thursday, October 27, 2011

The 2012 House Calendar has been Published!

Great News! House Majority Leader Eric Cantor has just released the 2012 House legislative calendar. The calendar is important as it outlines when congress will be in session, constituent work weeks, voting limits, etc.

If you are planning on having a lobby day, be sure to consult this calendar before deciding on a specific day.


Wednesday, October 26, 2011

The Electoral College vs. The Direct Vote

With the Republican primary going into high gear, the 2012 elections are gradually taking center stage in the news. A few days ago, there was a Politico article that featured a Gallup poll showing a majority of Americans are in favor of changing the presidential election from the Electoral College system to a direct vote. Under the Electoral College, each state receives the same number of votes as Representatives and Senators and that represent it. Whoever wins the popular vote in a particular state, wins their electoral votes. Currently there are 538 electoral votes in the Electoral College; the extra 3 belong to the District of Columbia. Under a direct vote, the president would only need to win a majority of votes in the entire country.

Remember the 2000 Gore v. G.W. Bush Election? George W Bush went on to the become president even though Then Vice-President Al Gore won the voting majority of the country. Unfortunately for him, winning the “popular vote” does not capture the presidency in or Electoral College system. Bush won 271 electoral votes to Al Gore’s 266. Interestingly, this is NOT a frequent issue in presidential elections. This situation has only occurred in three previous presidential elections (John Q Adams 1824, Rutherford B Hayes 1876, and Benjamin Harrison 1888). That’s less than 10% of US presidential elections to date.

If the Electoral College was eliminated and the direct vote implemented, it is likely that large sections of the nation would probably be ignored during an election. All a candidate would need to win the election are the votes in the nation’s population centers and major cities. Because of this, it is unlikely that small and rural states would ever ratify a Constitutional amendment. With that in mind, if your organization is contemplating jumping into the 2012 fray, remember to not just campaign in areas with the most people, but in the “swing states” that seem to determine the next President.

***For more tips and strategies after the election, sign up for our FREE webinar, "Winning, No Matter Who Wins" on Thursday, November 15. More information here.

Monday, October 24, 2011

It’s Halloween, Time to Put on Your Best Advocate Costume!

The air is turning crisp and cool, the trench coats and boots have been brought out of storage and dusted off, and it’s almost time to don your best disguises for Halloween. As I started planning out my own costume, it occurred to me that it can also be beneficial to disguise yourself a bit when you’re advocating Congress—but not as a vampire or a pirate wench (and no, I’m not dressing up as either of those).

First, let me mention the characteristics of your inner advocate that you do NOT want to disguise. Don’t try to hide your passion or your persistence, as these qualities make up the foundation of effective advocacy. That said, there is a difference between passion and the need to say absolutely everything that’s on your mind, like “You just want more campaign money!” or “You should agree with everything I say because I’m obviously right.” It’s important to stay true to who you are, but if you find yourself starting to go this route when you’re communicating with your legislators, just know that you’re not going to get very far. Insulting someone is never the best way to get what you want from them. If you’re the type of person that normally tends toward these opinionated outbursts, try to rein it in when you’re advocating. Put on a mental disguise and become someone that, well, doesn’t do that.  

Until your next advocacy adventure, have a Happy Halloween! And gentlemen, I know you might think it’s hilarious but please spare us all the former New York Congressman gray boxer-brief costume—no one wants to see that. At the very least, keep it off of Twitter. 

Thursday, October 20, 2011

The Clock is Ticking: The Super Committee's Timeline

Between the Occupy Wall Street protests, Republican primary debates, and recent death of Muammar Gaddafi, many people seem to have lost sight of something very important: The 12 member bipartisan debt “Super Committee” that has been charged with finding $1.2 Trillion in cuts over the next ten years. In case you have not heard, The 12 members of the panel include:

Rep. Van Hollen (D-MD)
Rep. Clyburn (D-SC)
Rep. Becerra (D-CA)
Rep. Camp (R-MI)
Rep. Upton (R-MI)
Rep. Hensarling (R-TX, co-chair)
Sen. Baucus (D-MT)
Sen. Murray (D-WA, co-chair)
Sen. Kerry (D-MA)
Sen. Portman (R-OH)
Sen. Toomey (R-PA)
Sen. Kyl (R-AZ)

With extraordinarily secretive proceedings, there is only speculation about where the group is in terms of finding a consensus. There is a nice timeline at the Atlantic that outlines the urgency of the situation. Roughly five weeks from today, the committee will vote on its proposal. This will require a simple majority to pass. Assuming the proposal passes, a month later both chambers of Congress will vote on the proposal. That is right around the corner.

Whatever your advocacy issue is, I would HIGHLY suggest that you begin to reach out to your respective legislators and tell them how your issue should be treated in the Super Committee’s deliberations. You can also send your recommendations directly to the super committee on their website.

Monday, October 17, 2011

Advocacy Tips: Sometimes You Have to Start Small

When Senate Democrats tried to get a passing vote on Obama’s American Jobs Act last week, it was quickly shot down. But that doesn’t mean they have to give up on the legislation entirely. This week the Senate plans to introduce a portion of the Jobs Act as its own separate bill for consideration—the piece that would provide $35 billion to prevent teacher and first-responder layoffs. So why are they introducing part of a bill that was already rejected? The idea here is that this component of the Jobs Act has more bipartisan support than the bill as a whole, so separating it out might yield a passing vote.

You should consider this strategy for your advocacy efforts. If your Members of Congress are giving you a hard time about giving you everything you want (don’t you hate that?), see if you can narrow down your ask to something they are more likely to agree to. Instead of demanding $10 billion in funding for your programs, ask them to speak up in support of some of the provisions that fit their legislative profile a little better.This doesn’t mean you should give up on the rest of your goals, but sometimes you have to start small to get things accomplished. If you are willing to compromise with your legislators in this way, it shows them that you are reasonable and that it would be worth their time to work with you in the future. From there, you can work your way up to the bigger asks. 

Friday, October 14, 2011

Advocacy Tips: Tie in a Winning Message

The pressure is on for Congress to make difficult decisions about where to cut federal spending. Congress has until November 18th to finalize appropriations for Fiscal Year 2012 that include $7 billion in cuts compared to Fiscal Year 2011 (or else pass another Continuing Resolution), and the Select Committee on Deficit Reduction has until November 23rd to devise and agree on a plan to reduce the federal deficit by $1.2 trillion over ten years. If you’re worried that the programs that are important to you are on the chopping block, now is the time the ramp up your advocacy efforts and make sure your legislators know why these programs should remain in place. While most of your arguments will be narrowly focused, there are a couple of strategic themes which transcend any issue area that you should consider for your messaging.

The first strategic theme is jobs, jobs, jobs. In case you haven’t noticed, Congress is very aware of the high unemployment rate in this country. You may have even heard one or two sound bites of a Member of Congress talking about the importance of job creation (okay, more like one or two thousand sound bites). Unless you’re advocating for the Jobs Are Overrated Association, you can probably find a way to talk about how these federal programs help your industry create jobs. So do it.

The second point you should be making is how this issue affects their constituency. Although you are most likely fighting for federal programs that are implemented nationwide, your legislators need to hear exactly how these programs affect the people in their districts. It’s okay to include the ways in which these programs better the country as a whole, but the focus should be on statistics that tell a local story—What percentage of their constituents benefit from this program? How many jobs will this program create in their district?

Keep these ideas in mind as you develop your advocacy game plan and you’ll increase your chances of getting positive feedback.

Tuesday, October 11, 2011

Resources for Tracking Legislation

Many advocates I have spoken with are always impressed with how up-to-date on legislation we are at Advocacy Associates. Well, it is our job to know these things, but there is no reason any interested citizen cannot stay up to date on the latest congressional actions. The following are a few tools that will help you stay informed.
1. Word of Mouth. Unfortunately, this resource is unavailable to many of you simply because you are not in DC. This is not because of special interests or some crazy conspiracy. Much like there is movie gossip in Los Angeles that cannot be found elsewhere, there is unique political gossip in Washington that is not duplicated in blogs, magazines, or newspapers. This is why many people here are extremely careful about what he or she says. Reminds me of that old 1940s motto, “Loose Lips Sink Ships.”
2. CQ BillTrack. This is a key tool of every legislative monitor. This service tracks bills as they make their way through the process. You will see which committees the bills have been referred to, hearings about the bill, etc.
3. Thomas. A free service provided by the library of congress, this site allows you to plug in a bill number and find out critical information such as legislation text, cosponsors, summaries, actions taken on the bill, etc. It is not as quick to update as CQ, but it is very helpful if you want to lookup past or current bills.
4. Opencongress.org. Another site that provides similar information to the above mentioned sites. It was founded by the sunlight foundation in order to encourage civic engagement. The site is very intuitive and provides unique bill searches such as most viewed, most in the news, and rushed bills. This free resource site also provides information on Representatives and Senators such as contact info, voting history, campaign contributions, and much more.
As a final thought, I would STRONGLY caution against depending solely on main stream media outlets to keep you informed on legislation. News stations do not cover legislation until the last minute in order to create a sense of urgency and therefore a more exciting story. They also carry political bias. Do your own research so you can form your own opinion and advocate in all stages of the legislative process.

Friday, October 07, 2011

I couldn't have said it better myself...

In what may seem a "dog bites man" story (i.e., not really earth-shattering news), the Washington Post recently reported that "Few Americans Think Congress is Doing a Good Job." In fact, just 14% do and even they aren't wildly enthusiastic. It's probably more accurate to say that "few Americans think that Congress is not doing an abysmal job."

That said, there is information associated with this article that advocates should know. The truth is that Congress is designed to be completely and totally inefficient. Not much is supposed to get done and, one might argue, legislators are doing an excellent job of that. I was very impressed by a comment in the article from a very wise citizen from Washington state:

“Congress is supposed to be a mess and all screwed up in times of transition, when you have one party in control of one chamber and the other in control of the other. It’s supposed to be a brawl,” said Eric Briggs, 40, a financial adviser from West Richland, Wash., who cheered the GOP’s fighting spirit. “But people just don’t want to hear fighting. They just want everyone to get along and for it to be happy and work out.”

I couldn't have said it better myself. And in an argument for promoting factions in the U.S. Congress, James Madison (one of our founding fathers and a really smart dude) said:

Liberty is to faction, what air is to fire, an ailment without which it instantly expires. But it could not be a less folly to abolish liberty, which is essential to political life, because it nourishes faction, than it would be to wish the annihilation of air, which is essential to animal life, because it imparts to fire its destructive agency.

I had to read that a bunch of times to understand what it said, but the gist is: without factions there would be no liberty, just like without air there would be no life. Even though it makes governing more difficult, we need to live with it if we're going to go with this whole "government by the people" thing.

So if you're frustrated with Congress, rest assured that you should be. The only solution is persistence!

Wednesday, September 28, 2011

Advocacy Tips: The Key to a Productive Relationship is Reliability

I don’t know about you, but I’ve been experiencing some déjà vu lately. A potential government shut down, inability to compromise on Continuing Resolutions, poorly-timed congressional recesses-- I get this weird feeling, almost as if this has all happened before..

But seriously, Congress is at it again. Fiscal Year 2012 begins on October 1st (just three whole days from now), and after weeks of negotiations, rejections, and lots of bickering over disaster aid funding, Congress is finally coming close to a solution: a Continuing Resolution to fund the government through October 4th (just six whole days from now). Now they’ll be able to squeeze in a few more days of that good ol’ bipartisan rancor!

These back and forth, down-to-the-last-minute shenanigans (yes, I just said shenanigans) have become the catalyst for a national conversation about how reliable government actually is (not that people weren’t wondering that already). However, while there are understandably a ton of frustrated citizens out there, we can’t ignore the fact that on occasion Congress does pull through and get things done. How do legislators pull this off with so much on their plate? It all comes back to that same idea of reliability. Lawmakers rely heavily on their staff and colleagues for information and guidance on every single issue, and without this support it would be almost impossible for them to make educated decisions (go ahead and insert your own joke here, I know you want to).

Everyone needs a little help when it comes to getting things done, so if legislators are relying on their staff, who is the staff relying on? That would be you, advocates. Each staffer may have less issue areas they need to be knowledgeable about compared to the Member, but they are also expected to be complete and total experts. That means knowing all sides of the issue, having the most up-to-date facts, and most importantly, understanding how their issue areas affect the district they work for. This is where you become an invaluable source of information for them, because you can offer them two things they couldn’t get otherwise: your specific expertise and your local story. Staffers truly want to know all sides of their issue, and that includes your side, the side they might not have seen in their day-to-day research. Combine that with your first-hand experience of how that issue affects your district, and suddenly you have become a resource that staffer can rely on. Once you have built this trust, you can bet that when your Member requires information about that issue for some upcoming piece of legislation, that designated staffer is going to utilize anything relevant you provided them with.

Here are the three steps to becoming a trustworthy and effective resource for your Member of Congress:

1)      Identify your target. Whether you’re sending a letter, requesting a teleconference or setting up an in-person meeting, it’s important to make sure you are meeting with the right staffer. It is almost pointless to meet with a staff member that does not handle your specific issue. If I handle transportation and you’re coming in to talk about health care, everything you say to me is most likely going in one ear and out the other. I have enough to worry about. And those materials you left for me? Probably going in the trash.
2)      Provide quality information. Think about strategy when deciding what information you should and shouldn’t provide to a staffer. You don’t want to just give them general facts they already know, but you also don’t want to provide them with a novel including every last little detail you have at your disposal. Decide what is most germane to what you would like accomplished legislatively, and then draw from the facts and experience that is directly relevant to that.
3)      Keep the lines of communication open. If you want to build a relationship of trust and reliability with a staffer, don’t just speak with them once and consider your job done. Following up with new information shows them that you are always there as a resource. You shouldn’t constantly bombard them, just use your best judgment and reach out when necessary. 

Tuesday, September 20, 2011

Ethics Gone Wild?

I love ethics.  Ethics are good.  We should all have them, especially in Washington, D.C. 

At the same time, it's important to note that ethics are really, really hard to establish by rule or legislation.  Codes are useful.  Outlines are useful.  Even "guidelines" (like the Pirate code) are useful.  But when we start trying to control everyone's actions down to the minute there are some unintended consequences.  Here are some examples:
  • The Toothpick Rule:  No member of Congress or staff person may accept a "meal" from a lobbyist.  The intent was to stop all those three-martini lunches we hear so much about (BTW, I've been in DC for 24 years and no one has taken me to a three-martini lunch.  What am I doing wrong?).  However, have you tried to define a "meal?" Turns out it's not as easy as you think.  Is it sitting down?  Is it a reception? Does it have to include alcohol? Does breakfast count (first meal of the day?).  The result of seeking to clarify this is that members of Congress and their staff can attend an event where there might be  food and lobbyists ONLY if there are no chairs in the room (so they can't sit down) and ONLY if the food itself can fit on a toothpick.  Sure, you can eat as many toothpicked items as you want -- just don't sit.
  • The "No Awards in the Wrong Room" Rule:  One of my colleagues just told me about this one.  We all know that organizations like to recognize members of Congress who have been particularly helpful on an issue.  For example, both the American Library Association and the Humane Society of the United States -- not exactly the most "well-heeled" special interests -- give "legislator of the year" awards. However, under this rule they cannot give the legislator a physical token of the award (plaque, etc.) if that member of Congress is the one who requested the room that the award event will be held in.  Bear in mind that the only way to get rooms on the hill is through a Congressional office.  Now, you can hand the legislator the award in another room.  Or in the hallway.  Or in the bathroom.  Just not in THAT particular room.  Huh?  Is there a concern that we're trading room space for recognition?  Seems odd. 

I'm not suggesting that ethics are not sorely needed in Washington, D.C.  I'm even a fan of Congressional codes of conduct (see the example for the House at: http://oce.house.gov/code-of-official-conduct.html -- in fact, I'll bet many Americans don't even know it exists!)  I certainly can't be an apologist for the many crazy things that happen in D.C.  But is this REALLY what we want legislators to be spending time on?  Whether a certain food will fit on a toothpick?  Or which room they accept a plaque in?  For me the answer is no.  What do you think?

Thursday, September 15, 2011

Happy Constitution Day!

As I'm sure everyone knows, Saturday,September 17th is Constitution Day, although this year it's being observed on Friday September 16th, so go ahead and leave the office early in celebration! Personally, I'm all for making it a federal holiday, but I'm not getting a great deal of traction for this idea.

Maybe that's because some of the provisions of the Constitution seem a little, ummm, questionable. Seriously, what on earth were the founding fathers thinking when they said things like "the Congress shall have the power to borrow money on the credit of the United States?" Seems like perhaps we got a little carried away on that one.

That said, we certainly can't agree on whether changing the Constitution, for example with a balanced budget amendment, is a good or bad idea.We all have our own opinions. But in a way that's the whole point, right? We can argue publicly about what the Constitution means and what the founding fathers thought and what we -- as in "we the people" -- should do in terms of changing it. That's a LOT to celebrate.

And perhaps most important, September 17th is ALSO International Talk Like a Pirate Day. Coincidence? I think not. In honor of the confluence of these events, I'm offering for you a tranlation of the preamble to the Constitution into piratize -- and here it is:

The pirate speaks,"We t' People o' t' United States, in Order t' form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, inaye domestic Tranquility,provide for t' common defence, promote t' general Welfare, and secure t' Blessin's o' Liberty t' ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain and establish this Constitution for t' United States o' America."

If you want to translate more things (like the First Amendment, which protects our right to Piratize), go to http://www.talklikeapirate.com/translator.html. Oh, yeah, and the Constitution -- check it out at:
http://www.archives.gov/exhibits/charters/constitution_transcript.htm

Tuesday, September 13, 2011

Do Social Media Campaigns Really Work? We Think So (and we know best)!

There was an interesting article in the Washington Post Style section this past weekend about a woman who started an online petition for JC Penney to retract a T-Shirt from its stores which read: “I’m too pretty to do my homework, so my brother has to do it for me.” Between the 1,600 signatures she collected by putting her campaign on Change.org and the negative comments JC Penney was receiving on Facebook and product reviews, the T-Shirt was pulled from their stores within 13 hours of the petition’s birth.

This article is amusing, yes, but it is also very telling about the profound effect a social media campaign can have on a grassroots advocacy effort. It’s easy to get discouraged and think that the time and energy you put into your social media effort just ends up as white noise somewhere in the vast expanses of cyber space. Also, I would be lying if I claimed that every grassroots advocacy issue with a social media presence is successful within 13 hours (or at all for that matter).  That said, what this article shows us is that a well-organized, well thought out campaign with a strong message can be extremely effective not only for building a foundation of supporters but for getting your message heard by the people you want to hear it. Your cause may not have an attention-grabbing, insulting T-Shirt to get people fired up, but if you can find a creative way to appeal to your audience, your advocacy base will only grow. Better yet, there is a serious possibility that you will accomplish something. 

Monday, September 12, 2011

The Two Party System and What It Means for your Advocacy

Lately, I have heard a lot of chatter about the impact our two party system has on governance. The common accusation is that the political parties’ maneuvers and rhetoric has left the government incapacitated. In response, the majority of the American public has begun to identify themselves as independents. The words liberal and conservative, Republican and Democrat have become dirty to the rest of the country. The Republican presidential debate and President Obama's speech last week are only further fueling the public's frustration. There is an emergence of centrist groups, No Labels and Americans Elect, seeking to challenge partisanship and our two party system.

Interestingly, this is not a new issue. When President George Washington retired from the presidency in 1796, His farewell address insightfully discusses the issues from political parties that are still applicable today.

“All obstructions to the execution of the laws, all combinations and associations, under whatever plausible character, with the real design to direct, control, counteract, or awe the regular deliberation and action of the constituted authorities, are destructive of this fundamental principle, and of fatal tendency. They serve to organize faction, to give it an artificial and extraordinary force; to put, in the place of the delegated will of the nation the will of a party, often a small but artful and enterprising minority of the community; and, according to the alternate triumphs of different parties, to make the public administration the mirror of the ill-concerted and incongruous projects of faction, rather than the organ of consistent and wholesome plans digested by common counsels and modified by mutual interests.”

I can write a book about the pros and cons of the two party system and partisanship, if really interested read this article about possible reformers to help the system, but let’s discuss how you can overcome the challenges posed in our system and effectively advocate for your issue.

1. DO NOT BE DISCOURAGED. The system is not perfect, but many nonpartisan citizens have successfully advocated for their issue.
2. Use the power of Constituency. Members have gone against party marching orders in the past. Most of the time it is because the majority of the people living in their district were in favor of the option that was against the greater party’s interests.
3. Persistence is key. During my time on the Hill and on the campaign trail, persistence was always the name of the game. The people who successfully got representatives to change their position were the most persistent in their emails, letters, and meetings.
4. Find like-minded individuals. There is power in numbers. Find people in your local community and state who also believe the issue you are advocating for. A persistent group will be more effective than a persistent individual
5. Lastly, gain support from larger groups to endorse your issue. These groups include trade associations, nonprofits, and local community organizations. You should target groups without official party affiliation and/or have groups from both sides of the aisle.

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Tuesday, September 06, 2011

The White House Petition Site -- Useful? Or Useless?


Many of you have probably heard that the Obama Administration is launching what's being called a "petition site."  The idea is to have a place where people can directly petition the federal government -- you know, like it says in the First Amendment.  If you can gather enough support, the White House will review your petition and send you an official response.

I'm all for advocating in any way, shape or form and, hey, if you have a big enough cause I say go for it.  Such a site may help raise the profile of your issue in a new way.

But if you're one of the thousands of advocacy groups around the country focused on a somewhat niche set of issues that are unlikely to garner hundreds of thousands of supporters, I really don't think this site is a good use of your time.  Why?  Two main reasons:

First of all, in many cases a federal agency can't solve your problem.  Unless you're talking about a regulation (i.e., the implementation of a law passed by Congress), one likely response you'll get from the White House is "hey, interesting idea, but we can't do anything about it.  Congress needs to pass a law to allow that to happen."   In some cases an agency may have some leeway, but for the most part the authority of the executive branch rests in its implementation powers, not in changing policy.

But second, and more important, effective advocacy is all about telling a personal story that relates back to a policy issue.  To be a truly engaged citizen -- a true participant in the "we the people" philosophy -- you'll need to think carefully and wholeheartedly about how what government does impacts you directly.  Once you're able to connect that personal story back to government action you'll be far more likely to gain the attention of policy makers of all types and from all sides of the aisle.  A "yeah, me too" kind of signature on a petition just won't get you there.

So kudos to the Obama Administration for taking some steps to better listen to citizens.  However, if you're a citizen who wants to move beyond being heard to to eventually be agreed with (our overall goal, right?), you'll need to likewise move beyond petitions and toward active, effective engagement.

The Seven Deadly Sins of Lobby Days

Congress is back in session, and so are Lobby Days! Here is an article Stephanie Vance wrote offering the seven "don'ts" to keep in mind for your Capitol Hill day:

Although I am known by the somewhat spiritual title of "Advocacy Guru," I must admit that I'm not really of any particular religious ilk (although many of my closest friends belong to some of the world's finest religions). Normally I wouldn't really notice the start of the Lenten season, but in February, my colleagues and I happened to be having a, umm, "staff meeting" at a local watering hole. There we saw a number of people with the mark of the cross on their foreheads in honor of Ash Wednesday.


OK, yes, it seemed a bit odd that the first thing our fellow customers did after being absolved of all their sins was head out to happy hour. But, perhaps that's how it's done. Like I said, I'm not a religious expert. Nevertheless, events like this always get me thinking about sins (my own and those of others), so I’ve compiled the seven deadly sins of lobby days. Learn from our trials by not committing any of the following sins yourself:

Sin #1 -- Non-Constituency: When requesting a meeting, whether with the member or a staff person, the first question you will be asked is "are you from the district or state?" Elected officials and their staff are there to represent a discreet group of people. You absolutely MUST demonstrate your relevance to that discreet group of people or they won't meet with you. Our meeting request letters always include the city of constituent asking for the meeting - and some offices will ask for a full street address just to be sure!


Sin #2 - Non-Written Requests: OK, I lied. Actually the first thing you will be asked by the usually incredibly young person who answers the phone is "have you sent your request in writing?" Don't even bother to call before you have either faxed in the request (go to www.congess.org to look up fax numbers) or e-mailed it through the Congressman's website (accessible through www.house.gov and www.senate.gov)


Sin #3 - Assumption: As Robert Siegel once asked me when I worked at NPR "do you know the etymology of the word "assume?" My response was "who uses a word like 'etymology'?" Anyway, if you don't want to make a donkey's behind of yourself, never assume that your faxed or e-mailed request actually got to the office or that the scheduler will just magically get back to you. With hundreds of requests to go through a day, things get lost. Often. Be sure to follow-up (and be very polite - they don't lose things on purpose, they're just overwhelmed).


Sin #4 - Member-itis: Never, ever insist that you will meet only with the member instead of a staff person. First of all, nine times out of ten you won't get a meeting. Members of Congress have unimaginable demands on their time and, believe it or not, you are not the only constituent in town at a given time. If you are offered a meeting with a staff person, that's a good thing! They often have more time to get to know you and your issues. All you'll probably get with the member is a "grip and grin," and the vague feeling that your issues weren't really covered.


Sin #5 - Inflexibility: This is particularly a problem when it's combined with high expectations. Too many groups offer a very small meeting window and then are irritated when staff or members are not available in the 12:00pm to 2:00pm time slot they've designated for meetings. Try to have an entire day available - and ask participants in your lobby day to bring a good book.


Sin #6 - Overzealousness: If you have multiple people coming from one district or state, do everything you can to coordinate before requesting meetings. In too many cases, each individual will request their own meeting. By the fifth meeting on the same topic, the staff are generally pretty cranky. They will thank you for your consideration of their time if you coordinate well.


Sin #7 - Abandonment: Once you've had a meeting in Washington, DC or your state capitol, your advocacy for the year isn't finished. In fact, it's just started. In most cases you will need to work with the office on an ongoing basis to help them truly understand your issues and the impact of certain policy actions on their constituents. After your meeting, don't abandon your elected officials and their staff - embrace them (although not literally. Some of them aren't huggers).


In eschewing these sins you will leave a better, fuller, happier advocacy-related life. Believe me, as the founder of the cult of effective advocacy I've had plenty of experience in this area. Please feel free to send your worldly possessions my way.

Wednesday, August 24, 2011

Meeting Your Legislator’s Staff on a Lobby Day

During your organization’s lobby day, some of your legislators will be unavailable and you will meet with their staffers instead. This may seem inconsiderate or a waste of time, but these meetings are just as important as meeting directly with your legislator. Let’s take a look at what a Congressional staff is like and what you can do to ensure that you have an impactful meeting.

In the House of Representatives, a Congressman’s DC office staff is typically 10-13 people, give or take an intern. When I have spoken with past lobby day participants, most are surprised that majority of their Congressman’s staff are young professionals. Yes, it is true that Congressional staffers are young with the average age range of 22-26 years old. The most notable exceptions are the chief of staff and legislative director, the two highest positions in the office after the Congressman. These positions are generally filled with middle aged professionals with a spouse, kids, mortgage, etc.

So why is the legislature staffed by college fresh twenty somethings? Well ,these staffers are often underpaid, starting salary for entry level position is around 25k a year and I have heard of salaries as low as 22k a year. DC is an expensive city and it is near impossible to support a family on this salary. Staffers are also over worked, in session staffers may work as much as 60-80 hours a week. Lastly, there is virtually no job security. All the federal employee laws that are in place in other departments do not exist on the Hill. Staffers can be fired at will and some Congressional members have a reputation for cycling staffers every 6-12 months. In addition, the staffers’ jobs are in danger every two years with elections. If the member is voted out, the staffer loses his or her job as well.

On the Senate side, the staff tends to be much larger. Depending on the Senator’s state size, position in leadership, and committee assignment, staff can range from 30-50 people. Many of these staffers tend to be young as well, but there are vastly more graduate degree holders working on the Senate side. There is slightly more job security for Senate staffers because elections only occur every six years, but Senators can also fire their staffers at will. The pay is also slightly better, but not enough to really make a distinction. The Senate staffers’ working hours are also identical to House staffers.

Now that you have some background on congressional staffers, let’s talk about what to expect during your meeting. The Congressional staffer is always very courteous during the meeting. The staffer will also pay close attention to your concerns, regardless of whether or not their boss agrees with your position. The staffer will be especially interested in your concerns if you are a constituent. A common error I find among lobby day participants is to not take the meeting with the young staffer seriously. This is a big mistake. Although young, I promise that the staffer is extremely well versed in the issues you wish to discuss. They eat, sleep, breath, swim, text, tweet, message, read, and everything else with the issues. Additionally, the legislator will turn to the appropriate staffer, regardless of age, for advice during crucial decisions and votes. It is imperative that you have a good meeting and leave a strong impression on the staffer as he or she will advise the member on that issue.

As Kaytee mentioned in an earlier blog post, the young staffers are generation Y-ers who are known for being technologically gifted and furious multitaskers. Be sure to be extra engaging in your meeting and include online resources such as QR codes on your business cards, social media channels, and digital copies of literature. Meetings with Congressional staffers are 15 minutes max. Ensure that you get the most out of your meeting by preparing your concerns into a concise set of points. I suggest doing some role play with a friend and/or practicing in front of the mirror the night before.

If your organization is interested in learning more about specific strategies while meeting with a legislator or his staff, I would suggest booking an Advocacy training specialist, such as the Advocacy Guru, to speak to your members before the lobby day. Happy Advocating!

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Tuesday, August 23, 2011

Advocacy Tips: You Cannot Persuade if You Don't Persist!


Harassment is a large portion of my job when I schedule congressional meetings for a Lobby Day. Persistence is the more accurate word, but I used the word harassment because that’s what it feels like I’m doing when I call the same office three times in one day, begging to speak with someone because the Lobby Day is tomorrow and we still don’t have a meeting scheduled. It can be uncomfortable to feel like you are bugging someone. And on top of that, I am also frustrated that no one is getting back to me. I wonder why they won’t just respond so that I don’t have to harass them anymore.

Why am I telling you this aside from the fact that I sometimes need to vent? Because many people experience these same sentiments when they are advocating their Members of Congress. They only call or email their Members once about a particular issue, and choose not to follow up because they don’t want to annoy the congressional office. They give up because they reached out once or twice and never heard anything back. I can relate, but my biggest piece of advice to you is to let go of your instinct to pull away. If you stop asking, you will never get what you want. I may have to make 20 phone calls to get that meeting scheduled, but I get it. When an issue that is important to you is down to the wire, don’t feel bad about contacting your congressional office multiple times. Be tactful (don’t call every five minutes), but keep the momentum going. The truth is they want to hear from their constituents. They want to know something is so important to you that you feel the need to call, email, and call again. This is precisely why I have stopped feeling guilty for calling an office three times in one day, because I know at the end of the day they want to meet with their constituents. Finally, don’t be discouraged when they don’t get back to you- it doesn’t mean they aren’t listening. Plus, I can almost guarantee that if you stay persistent you will eventually get a response. Now whether you get the response you want.. is something we’ll tackle another day. 

Saturday, August 20, 2011

Advocacy Lessons From Our Furry Friends

If you've known me for, say, five minutes, you'll know that I'm just a little enthusiastic about dogs. Some would say obsessed but I think they're being unreasonable. That's why I was really touched by this CNN article about a dog in Afghanistan named Giselle who has befriended some U.S. soldiers. In fact, she apparently befriends ALL U.S. soldiers she meets. Some people might have a name for that, but I just think it's sweet.

Her story reminded me of a tip sheet article I wrote many years ago after the demise of our beloved dog Xena Warrior Princess Dog about the advocacy lessons we can learn from the smart dogs in our lives. I won't reprise the whole thing here, but one of the main tips was to make the ask. At the risk of sounding weird by quoting myself, here's what I had to say:

"People don't know what you want unless you ask. Above all things, Xena Warrior Princess Dog excelled at making the ask. Whether she wanted a biscuit, a belly rub or a bite of her dog dad's dinner, Xena asked for it, frequently and without reservation. In fact, every once in a while it bordered on begging. Now I'm not suggesting that advocates resort to begging for what they want, but it is essential that you ask for something specific. Too many people try to "educate" their elected officials on the issues. They put all their time and energy into explaining the tragedy of situation X, while assuming that support for their preferred solution of policy Y would be obvious. It's not. Believe me, Xena never tried to get me to understand the tragedy of a biscuit-less life. She just told me she wanted a biscuit."

If you want to see the whole article, you can view it here (yeah, I know it's weird that it's on someone else's site. Thank goodness SOMEONE saves this things!)

In the years since I explained Xena's outstanding advocacy techniques, I came to recognize the one thing that works every time in effective advocacy, and that is big, melting brown eyes. Xena had them. Our current dog Ozzie has them. Both eventually got to the point where they didn't even have to ask for biscuits. They just got them.

Tuesday, August 16, 2011

Advocacy Tips: Diversity is Beautiful, so USE IT!


Unlike the not-so-diversified debt “super committee” (9 of the 12 members are middle-aged white males), the United States is truly a mixture of demographics (old, young, male, female, black, brown, gay, straight; you name it, we’ve got it). From a legislators-eye-view, the prominent demographics in their district or state impress upon relevant issues, community goals, and, most importantly, voting trends. Here at Advocacy Associates we stress the importance of being a constituent and the strength it adds to your voice when communicating with your legislators (you vote for them, and therefore they care). Just as Members of Congress care about what you think as a constituent, they also care about what constituents think as part of a larger demographic within their district (appealing to large groups equals more votes). This is something to take into consideration as you develop your messaging strategy. In addition to discussing how an issue affects you personally as a constituent, paint a picture of how this issue is important to a large number of their constituents by making some observations based on demographics. For example, if you want your Member of Congress to support funding for a health-related program and your district has a large population of senior citizens, frame your messaging to reflect the legislation’s positive impact on the elderly, and vice versa if your district is dominated by younger people. You’ll be impressed at how Member’s (and their staff’s) ears perk up when you mention a demographic that is relevant to their district. 

Monday, August 15, 2011

The Congressional August Recess or What The *#@! Are We Supposed To Do Now?

Here in our nation’s capital, we are at a time when the Representatives and Senators hang up their shoes and leave for their home districts or states. Washington quickly turns into a ghost town as many people in government relations offices take this opportunity to vacation, enjoy extended lunch breaks, and leave early on Friday work days. When speaking with my friends and family back in California, a question I often find myself answering is, “Why do they get an entire month off?! We still need to figure out how to solve this issue, that problem, or the other thing. What the *%#@ are we supposed to do?!” Interestingly, over the weekend there was a letter to the editor in the Washington Post defending the recess (http://www.washingtonpost.com/opinions/recess-doesnt-mean-vacation-for-congress/2011/08/08/gIQA7ZDuBJ_story.html). Whether you feel the August recess is a well-deserved break or not, let me answer this frequently asked question.

I’ll start by addressing the first part of the question, why do they take this month long break? Well, back in the years of horse and buggy, the buildings our legislators worked in had no air conditioning. In August, the humidity in D.C. is so unbearable that it should be outlawed by the Geneva Convention. As a result, the House and Senate would adjourn for the month of August to run home before the big bad humidity kicked in. Also, being a legislator before 1900 was not a full time job. The congressional schedule was only six months long so the legislators could return to their businesses. During the 1960s, the August recess became law because many legislators wished to spend some time with their families. As you can probably imagine (or remember for some of you), the 1960s was a busy time for Congress. For members today, the recess is not a big vacation in the Bahamas or Cancun. The overwhelming majority of our legislators use the recess as an opportunity to return to their districts and reconnect with their constituents.

So now that you have the abridged history lesson, let’s discuss what the August recess environment means for your organization or issue. I would NOT recommend having a lobby day, congressional briefing, or a meeting with congressional staffers in DC. Most of these staffers are out of town or will probably pay little attention during your meeting. Rather than trying to effect legislation, now is the time for your organization to turn its focus to creating a better relationship with the legislator. Connecting with your legislator in his or her home district will have a significant impact on the relationship as it solidifies your organization’s status as a vocal constituent group. Attending town hall meetings, arranging to have the legislator visit your workplace, or a simple meeting with the legislator will be enormously powerful in building a relationship with your Congressperson or Senator. The relationship you build today will be crucial tomorrow when you make your ask during the appropriations process, super committee vote, or the budget drafting.

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Thursday, August 11, 2011

Final 3 Members of Debt "Super Committee" Announced


Today, Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi appointed Rep. Van Hollen (D-MD), Rep. Clyburn (D-SC), and Rep. Becerra (D-CA) to serve on the “super committee” created under the debt ceiling agreement. This rounds out the 12-member bipartisan panel tasked with developing a plan to cut $1.5 trillion from the federal deficit over the next decade. Part of the debt ceiling agreement dictates that automatic cuts across the board on domestic and defense spending will be “triggered” if this committee cannot agree to a plan by Thanksgiving and get it approved by Congress before Christmas (happy holidays to all!)

If this special committee is any reflection of Congress at large then it goes without saying that they have a bumpy road ahead of them. With six republicans who have all gone on the record against any revenue increases and democrats that have strongly resisted cuts to entitlements, this group could easily fall into the same political stalemate we have all been losing sleep over for months (or is that just me?).  Here’s hoping they can turn over a new leaf and actually work together on a compromise. Goodness knows I could use the extra beauty sleep.

Here’s the full list of Members on the bipartisan panel:

Rep. Van Hollen (D-MD)
Rep. Clyburn (D-SC)
Rep. Becerra (D-CA)
Rep. Camp (R-MI)
Rep. Upton (R-MI)
Rep. Hensarling (R-TX, co-chair)
Sen. Baucus (D-MT)
Sen. Murray (D-WA, co-chair)
Sen. Kerry (D-MA)
Sen. Portman (R-OH)
Sen. Toomey (R-PA)
Sen. Kyl (R-AZ)

Advocacy Tips: Capturing the Attention of the All-Important Youngster Demographic

I recently attended a conference about professional speaking, and as I was listening to speakers speak about speaking (confusing, I know), a resounding theme seemed to pop up: it’s time to start appealing to a younger audience, aka the Millennials or Generation Y. To offer an extremely loose and clichéd definition, Millennials are those individuals born between 1980 and now, and they tend to be technologically savvy, media junkies, and a crazy combination of easily-distracted multitaskers (I’m definitely guilty of the last one). When they’re not busy getting distracted by shiny things (guilty again), the truth is these young adults are quickly dominating the market, the workforce, and even politics. So how does anyone trying to sell their message, whether a professional speaker, a grassroots campaign manager, or an advocate meeting with those super-young staffers on the Hill, appeal to their sensibilities? Here are a few thoughts:

  •  Millennials enjoy multiple stimuli. Millennials can watch the news, check their Facebook, play Angry Birds, tweet about playing Angry Birds, and listen to music all at the same time. And while it’s true that everyone has more information flooding their brains from various sources compared to a decade ago, Millennials are generally more active about seeking it out. This inevitably causes them to filter the information they take in (as impressive as it would be, they don’t actually retain every tweet they read). So with these subconscious filtration systems set in place, what ends up standing out? How do you get them to remember you and your message? One of the answers is repetition from multiple platforms. Create a Facebook page, a Twitter account, a YouTube channel, a blog, and interconnect them whenever possible. If you write a blog entry, tweet and post a status update about it. Tweet your Action Alert multiple times throughout the day using slightly different messaging each time. Don’t just give that twenty-something Hill staffer your business card; make sure they have access to all of these additional resources.
  •  QR codes are the next big thing. I’m willing to bet my future puppy on it, and anyone who knows me knows that’s a big deal. Not only are QR codes the next big thing, but they have “Millennial” written all over them (I assume you know I don’t mean that literally). For those of you that aren’t in on this growing fad, QR codes are those funny-looking black and white boxes that you scan with a smartphone app and a website pops up (like magic!). They are free to create on websites like qrcode.kaywa.com and qrstuff.com; simply enter in the website you want to pop up when people scan your QR code, hit go, and BAM, a custom code shows up on the screen. Now just start plastering it on all of your business cards, one-pagers, advertisements (tattoo it on your body, create custom jewelry out of it, shave it on your head..), and you’ll not only share your resources more effectively but you’ll also be super hip.
  •  Be entertaining and engaging. Just because you are in a one-on-one meeting with a young Hill staffer doesn’t mean you have their undivided attention or that they agree with what you are saying. When you’re speaking to a younger audience it becomes more important than ever to find ways to catch and keep their attention, make creative and compelling arguments, and truly engage them with your message. Once you’ve done that, just hand over your QR code-embellished business card and you will be so in. 

Wednesday, August 10, 2011

Congress- Now Available via Smart Phone

Do you ever find yourself riding home on the Metro, suddenly overwhelmed by the urge to know what bills were introduced in Congress today? Do you get irritable if you don’t have an instantaneous way to find out who represents the 99203 zip code in Congress? If you’re anything like me, and I bet you are, those situations plague you on a nearly daily basis. Fortunately, if you have a Droid or an iPhone, there is an app for that.
Droid owners are in luck; the “Congress” application by Sunlight Labs is by far the best available on any platform. To find it, search in the marketplace for “Congress.” The application allows you to search for members of Congress by name, state, current location and zip code—perfect for enlightening those unenlightened friends who don’t know who represents them in Congress (you’re going to be so popular!). The application also allows you to search bills and laws, and gives details such as who introduced it, current activity and bill text via Thomas.gov. Once you find an interesting bill, you can share the information easily via Facebook, Twitter, text message or email. It also tracks votes in Congress, gives committee member listings for all committee and lists upcoming hearings. And if all of those features weren’t exciting enough, you can also create personalized alerts to be notified of activity for any bill. Now, you have no excuse to be caught off-guard when your local post office is renamed!
The applications available to iPhone users aren’t as comprehensive as the “Congress” application for Droid. Sunlight Labs does have a iPhone version of “Congress”, but it only has House and Senate floor updates, Whip notices (as nerdy as I am, I’m not entirely sure I would ever look at Whip notices), hearing information, and miscellaneous Congressional Budget Office (CBO) reports and other governmental documents. The application is fantastic if you want to see how a certain bill was scored by the CBO, but less helpful if you want to know basic information, such as who is the at-large Congressman for Montana (Rep. Denny Rehberg, by the way). If you’re looking for a basic Congressional guide, your best bet is the “Congress 411” application. It allows you to search members by Senate, House and location. But, the bill information and video feed seems to be rather outdated, so proceed with caution.
However, iPhone users win overall with the C-SPAN app, which is currently unavailable on the Droid. And with C-SPAN radio, C-SPAN, C-SPAN2 and C-SPAN3, who needs Congressional directories when you can listen to history in real time?

Monday, August 08, 2011

Hey Nation -- How Are You Doing?

This is an interesting question for a day when the stock market dropped another 600 points.  Note to self:  don't open my 401K statements for a year -- just like I did from 2008-2009.  The Brookings Institution has an answer and, shockingly, it's "not well."  There are some really smart people over there who looked at a variety of factors over the last five quarters to assess the state of the nation in terms of a) the general welfare, b) the common defense and c) the blessings of liberty.

If those words sound familiar they should.  They're from the preamble of the Constitution.  What I very much like about this report is the connection between the statistics surrounding current events and what we originally set out to do as a country.

Yeah, I'm not going to lie.  According to these figures the news is not, ummm, great.  But at least we know that if we're all depressed about the state of the nation, there's scientific evidence to back us up.

And, of course, I would not be the Advocacy Guru if I did not point out that there's something YOU can do about it!  Remember that another part of the Constitution (first amendment, one of my favorites) secures to us the freedom of speech.  So speak!  Find out who your legislators are at http://www.congress.org/, attend their townhall meetings this August, get on their Facebook pages, sign up for their Twitter feeds and politely, but firmly, share your views.

Tuesday, August 02, 2011

The Social Congress

All jokes about Anthony Weiner aside, a recent report from the Congressional Management Foundation (http://www.congressfoundation.org/) finds that "most members of Congress have thoroughly integrated social media in to their communications operations, and are using new media tools to gauge public opinion, communicate with constituents and reach new people." 

The findings on Facebook, Twitter and YouTube were particularly interesting, with  64% of responding offices finding Facebook to be a somewhat or very useful tool for understanding constituent's views, while only 34% see YouTube as such. 

Yet staff seem to realize that  YouTube is the number two search engine after Google (really, it's true).  A whopping 72% think that YouTube is an important mechanism for communicating their member's view.  Notice the difference:  34% see YouTube as useful for receiving input while 72% see YouTube as useful for delivering messages.  I'm not sure why that is, but it tells me we can be a lot more effective in using this tools to get advocacy messages across to members of Congress.

In addition, I'm curious about how the rise of social media will impact this little thing we call "constituency."  When dealing with plain, old snail mail addresses, legislators and staff know whether the person they are communicating with is a constituent.  Online, it's much more difficult.  One of the first rules of advocacy is to be sure you can demonstrate why you're relevant to your audience -- and for Congress that means being a constituent.  But will social media change this basic tenant of representative democracy?  I'm not sure, but I'll be paying attention, I promise

Other findings suggest that many staff are concerned that their offices do not spend enough time on social media, with younger staffers find social media far more important to the operations than older staff do.  This tells me that the use of social media will only rise as older staff retire and newer staff, with their social savvy, come to Capitol Hill.

What can we take away from this?  Apparently the Internet is here to stay and we avoid it at our peril.  Even if your demographic is older and your first thought is "well, my members won't use social media"," remember that your ultimate audience, legislators and their staff, do.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Are We Going to Hand Over the Pink Slip on the United States?

People sometimes see me as an apologist for Congressional inaction. I tend to go on and on about how the founding fathers actually WANTED to structure a government that can't really get anything done except in times of great distress (think Roosevelt's New Deal, for example.)

I've asked people to recognize that the vehement differences between members of Congress who represent very rural Alabama versus those who represent urban New York, as examples, will sometimes put the U.S. Congress in a giant game of "chicken" as legislators do their best to represent their constituents' views.

The responsible way out of this game is through compromise. After a variety of shenanigans we usually get out of it, but I'm not so sure about that this time.

It seems to me we have two options:

• Option One: Refuse to compromise, let the government default, see our credit rating decline and, eventually, be unable to pay our bills because no one will give us any money. Umm, not optimal. If we're worried about spending cuts and/or revenue increases now, we're sure not going to like the depth and breadth of them when we go bankrupt.
• Option Two: Agree to compromise on spending cuts that are less dramatic and revenue increases that are manageable, see our credit rating decline slightly (probably can't avoid it now) and recognize that in taking these steps now we'll have more control over what happens to us in the future.

Yes, I know that some members of Congress ran on a commitment to balance the budget immediately if not sooner. Frankly, this was never possible. Governing is very different from campaigning and it is folly for citizens and elected officials to think differently.

Next time a politician tells you "I won't raise taxes and I'll balance the budget" I suggest you point out that those responsible for protecting the long term interests of the United States may need to compromise -- and ask them what their plan is for building bridges, not burning them.

In fact, I encourage you to deliver this message now which, given the state of the Capitol switchboards, it appears thousands are already doing. You can figure out who your legislators are at www.congress.org, e-mail them through that site or call the Capitol at (202) 224-3121.

Unless we want to give someone the pink slip on the United States, we've got to tell the leadership on both sides of the aisle to stop letting their fringe hold the rest of us hostage in this debate.

If we think government is broken, It's time for the American public to fix it by being the grown ups in this situation. Call or write your legislator today and let them know compromise is OK and even expected. Apparently, only we can solve this problem.

Friday, July 22, 2011

Nero Fiddles While Rome Burns: Or, What the HECK is Going on in DC?

Doesn't it seem like the heat wave here in Washington, DC may be seeping into the brains of our elected officials? I'm guessing that the real problem here is that people are suffering from heat exhaustion. I know I'm exhausted just hearing about it!

While Washington literally burns in 110 degree heat, you've probably heard that we have a little debt ceiling situation here in Washington, DC and that Republicans and Democrats are in just a bit of a stand-off. Some want dramatic cuts in discretionary programs. Some want tax increases. Some don't. No one wants to make significant changes to Social Security or Medicare. Every wants their specific perspective to be the ONLY one adopted.

For example, earlier today we learned that the Senate rejected the House proposal for "cut, cap, balance" and then left for the weekend. For the uninitiated, "cut, cap, balance" is a proposal to require Congress to dramatically cut and cap spending and then proposed an amendment to the Constitution that would require a balanced budget.

I'm not a fan of cut, cap, balance for a variety of reasons (many of which are outlined in this CNN Money report), but the main thing that bugs me is that all the votes on it are a complete waste of time. The House shouldn't have passed it and the Senate shouldn't have taken it up (hey, if they did nothing it wouldn't have become law anyway!) It was obviously a non-starter for a variety of reasons, one of which is the balanced budget amendment.

Last time I checked, it takes a two-thirds vote in both the House and the Senate (which would have been totally impossible, I might note) to even PROPOSE a constitutional amendment to the states and then three-fourths of the states must agree. People have been trying to do that on the budget issue since the Constitution was ratified. Absolutely nothing immediately substantive would come out of a balanced budget vote, so clearly the idea here wasn't to get something done. It was to make a statement. I don't think we have time for "statements" now. I think we need to get this thing taken care of.

One of the main problems, though, behind why members of Congress have no stomach for reducing spending is that the American people don't have the stomach for reducing spending, particularly on the big ticket items. There's a lot of talk about eliminating funding for a variety of programs that will have absolutely NO impact on the overall budget (public broadcasting, planned parenthood and the like). Taken all together, the two items mentioned here represent less than one one-hundredth of one percent of the budget.

We should be focusing on things that can really get us out of this situation even if, yes, that means raising taxes or messing with Social Security and Medicare. There, I said it. Citizens should tell their members of Congress that we should stop fiddling while Rome burns and get on with it!