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!

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Work on FY 12 Spending Bills Moves Slowly as Congress Tackles Debt Limit before Deadline

The federal government is on track to reach the $14.3 trillion debt ceiling two weeks from today. The looming August 2 deadline means that most other issues on Capitol Hill are taking a backseat. Even the Fiscal Year 2012 appropriations process is partly on hold as everyone waits to see what deal congressional leaders will make to avoid the projected fallout of defaulting on federal debt. The current fiscal year will end September 30th, but this deadline is not always met by Congress. (Remember the near shutdown before a budget deal was reached in April for the current fiscal year? That was more than 6 months late.)

To date, only five of the twelve annual appropriations bills have been approved by the House and only one has been formally taken up by the Senate. Three bills—dealing with transportation and housing; the State Department and foreign aid; and labor, health and education spending—have not been introduced at all. What these three bills have in common is the likelihood of being targets for major reductions in funding if spending cuts are part of the debt deal.

Negotiations on a variety of proposals for handling our nation’s debt and future budgets are expected to continue right up until the August 2 deadline. Only after a short- or long-term compromise is reached, will we see final agreements on spending for FY 12. In the meantime, if you are confused about the deficit and what it means in terms of national spending, check out Five truths about the deficit and national debt.

Friday, July 15, 2011

Spring Lobby Days: The Art of Preparation

I’m sure you have heard the old saying “The early bird catches the worm.” Well, this is especially true when it comes to planning your Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill. Spring is an extremely popular time for groups to come lobby their Members of Congress, and it’s not just because D.C. is beautiful in the spring (although that certainly doesn’t hurt). Aside from the lure of our famous cherry blossoms, springtime is when Congress begins debating budget resolutions for the following Fiscal Year (in theory anyway), and there are often new Members of Congress to start building relationships with. So while it may seem like March and April are far off in the distance, remember that those who plan in advance (and trust me, there is plenty to do) usually have the most success with their Lobby Day (i.e. catch the proverbial worm).

So what can you do to start preparing for your next Lobby Day now? I thought you’d never ask, but since you have here are 4!

Establish a date. The sooner you have dates, the sooner you can work logistics. You might want to run potential dates by your advocates and see what feedback you get in terms of availability. When are the best times to go? It’s impossible to predict the legislative calendar for next year because they don’t make it this far in advance, but be sure to avoid Mondays, Fridays, and weeks with federal holidays if you want to maximize meetings with actual Members of Congress. You might also look at this year’s Congressional calendar (available for the Senate and House) to get a sense of what might happen next year – although this can ALWAYS change!

Identify your policy issues. It’s never too early to start thinking about your approach for future Lobby Days. Here are some things to consider in the coming months. The appropriations process for Fiscal Year 2012 is currently underway. What happened/is happening to the programs you care about? What are your goals for Fiscal Year 2013 appropriations? What feedback did you get from your most recent Lobby Day? What seemed to work well in meetings, and what didn’t? How should you alter your strategy next time to be more effective? What were your legislative “asks” during your last Lobby Day? Did any Members of Congress follow through? Do you want to keep the same “asks” or alter them? Has any new legislation been introduced that is important to your members? What has your organization accomplished since your last Lobby Day, and would you want to highlight them in your meetings?

Identify your "advocacy footprint." While it’s important to build relationships with as many Members of Congress as you can, to paraphrase George Orwell, some Members of Congress are more equal than others when it comes to your specific policy issues. Since the most effective meetings are usually based off of constituency (legislators are always a little nicer to the people who vote in their district), one very important strategic move is to identify your biggest congressional targets and push for advocates living in their districts to participate in your Lobby Day. It may be helpful to see where your participants were from in previous Lobby Days. You can also find a person’s district by entering their zip code into http://www.congress.org/.
Think logistics. Start thinking about what group size you expect for next year (how many people attended last year?), how you are handling your registration process, and where you will be bunkered up in D.C. (maybe you want a closer hotel this year). Get feedback from your participants on these issues.

Get your advocactes fired up early. Keeping advocates actively engaged year-round is almost as difficult as keeping your Members of Congress actively engaged year-round. If you are finding that your members are starting to lose their fresh-off-a-Lobby-Day buzz, start getting them excited about next year’s event. Host a webinar about planning for next year or about the importance of following up after a Lobby Day. Plan a policy call to keep your members in the loop about what’s going on in Congress. And if that doesn’t work, just send out fliers for D.C.’s 2012 Cherry Blossom Festival and let them come to you.

Tuesday, July 12, 2011

Helping Advocates Help Themselves

In a dream world, all citizens are excited and enthusiastic about communicating with legislators. They join interest groups to be updated on all the latest and greatest policy information and use every tool at their disposal to call, write, visit and send carrier pigeons to members of Congress or the state legislature.

While this is certainly the case with some groups, others struggle with getting their members to engage. There’s often a disconnect between what members would like to see happen from a policy perspective in Washington, DC and their understanding of the critical role they play in achieving those goals.

So if you’re leading an advocacy effort, how do you address this disconnect? In the next series of blog posts we’ll look at five barriers, specifically:

  • I don’t have time to advocate

  • My voice won’t make a difference

  • Isn’t advocacy what we pay our lobbyists for?

  • It seems like we’re always advocating and never getting anywhere

  • I don’t agree with the organization’s policy position

If your grassroots are wilting as a result of any of these issues, stay tuned! For now we’ll look at the first, “I don’t have time to advocate.”

Far and away, this is what I hear the most. If you’re working with individuals who also have lives away from politics (generally everyone outside Washington, DC), they may feel that they don’t have a lot of extra time to devote to advocacy.

One solution is to identify a few quick, easy and meaningful activities to get them started. These might include putting together a short pledge for them to print out and sign as a reminder of their commitment, asking them to join your advocacy network and agree to take action through that network, providing information and links for them to post on social media sites or creating a petition for them to sponsor while encouraging others to do so as well.

Now, don’t get me wrong. These are not “busy work” activities. We’re all too busy for busy work. What you’re really doing is helping activists recognize the ways in which advocacy can be integrated into their everyday lives. Sometimes they want to be active but don't know what to do. As an advocate leader, you can follow-up directly with those who have taken that small action to help them with more. Once they’ve done one thing, they’re more likely to find time to do another.

In short, when you learned to swim (if you did) did someone throw you into the deep end and expect you to succeed? Well, come to think of it, I have heard of that strategy. I’ve just never been a fan. I prefer taking a few steps at a time to build expertise and confidence – and only then being thrown into the deep end.

Friday, July 08, 2011

Back to Basics: Old-Fashioned, But Very Effective, Approaches to Advocacy

When faced with the daunting task of creating a strong grass roots campaign, I found that many people are unsure of where to start. The task seems more overwhelming when looking at large grassroots campaigns implemented by groups such as the AARP or the Tea Party activists.

Many of my fellow generation y-ers often start with a Facebook page and invite all their friends, who in turn invite all their friends to join the group. I am a strong believer that the social media tools that exist today are game changers in contemporary politics, i.e. Arab Spring Revolutions. Unfortunately, a large Facebook group, frequent tweets, and entertaining YouTube videos aren’t enough to mobilize the effort you need to be successful in your campaign to influence legislators. So in addition to the new technologies that are available, let’s turn to some classic advocacy strategies that we have refined based on our work with our clients.

1. Information Gathering- Perhaps the foundation of any campaign. It’s not enough to get a large quantity or the obvious, but you need to get the RIGHT information. This information should enlighten what the situation is across groups, organizations, and activists involved in the process. Questions may include: frequency of outreach to legislators or public, who has done outreach, what methods have been used in the outreach, and what research has been done (such as looking at FEC reports).

2. Organization- After deciding what information needs to be gathered, the organization of that data is the next step. Being one of the young guns at Advocacy Associates, I prefer to use online contact forms to complete this. Websites such as Wufoo.com will allow you to build a form that has the questions needed to capture the information that you will synthesize later either into charts, graphs, or statistics. Remember: “The secret of all victory lies in the organization of the non-obvious.” -Marcus Aurelius

3. Old-Fashioned Phone Calls – Even with all the tools at our disposal to communicate with others, sometimes a phone call is the best way to reach out. I found this to be true working on a political campaign as well as with our clients. First, it’s much more difficult to blow someone off on a phone call vs. an email, Facebook message, or general tweet. Also, believe it or not, people appreciate the gesture of making a personal phone call to reach out. Who doesn’t like to feel special enough for a phone call? A corollary to this, ALWAYS return a phone call and ALWAYS call when you schedule a call. Not doing either will convey a message that you are either lazy or unreliable.

Apply these three strategies in the beginning of your campaign and I promise that you will have the solid foundation needed to have a strong influence over legislation.

***For more tips and strategies, follow Advocacy Associates on

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Conventioneers Everywhere!

The Washington Post had a fun and "tongue in cheek" article recently about conventioneers in Washington, DC. Basically, it outlined how you can know who's-who when those large groups come to town -- and how to tell if you're a Washingtonian. You can read it at http://tinyurl.com/6fj2c6l. Turns out, I'm not a Washingtonian, but I've been here for only 22 years, so that makes sense.

Kidding aside, it's important to remember that many of those groups are coming to DC to talk to their elected officials and their staff. These meetings can be really effective or, well, not so much. If you're going to come to Washington, DC you'll want to be sure you're prepared for the DC environment. Frankly, it's crowded, chaotic and, in the summer months, unbearable hot in Washington, DC. So in addition to packing the shorts and flip flops, be sure to be prepared for meetings on Capitol Hill (including, but not limited to, don't wear your flip flops).

Advocates can get ready by:

  • Learning a little about the legislators you'll be meeting with (try the House and Senate sites at www.house.gov and www.senate.gov). Review their positions on your issues (if applicable) as well as their overall political perspective. In addition, it's always good to know what bills they've introduced, which you can find at www.congress.gov

  • Developing your personal story, with an understanding particularly of how it connects to the policy issues that will be discussed. For example, patient advocacy group advocates should understand how to connect requests for more funding and/or better coverage to their own personal experience.

  • Reviewing some of the logistics before coming to Washington, DC (see metro maps at www.wmata.com and Capitol Campus maps at www.aoc.gov). Having these facts down will reduce the stress associated with navigating an unfamiliar city and allow advocates to focus more on their messages.

As an advocate coming to Washington, DC you'll want to not only be heard, but to be agreed with as well, right? So take some of these steps before you come and you'll be a "Washingtonian" in no time. Oh, and don't stand to the left on the escalators.