Wednesday, October 31, 2012

How to Trick Your Legislators into Doing What You Want - Even in an Election Year

The Guru as the Queen

If you think about it, isn’t Halloween really about using your influence to extract resources from people in authority? We can all learn a great deal from some of the 7-year olds in our communities, particularly in their approach to the time honored tradition of trick-or-treating. How?

Be Adorable: I’m not really the most “kid-friendly” person, but I must admit that when a small child of between 4 and 10, dressed as a fairy princess or spider man or even George Will (I live in DC, remember) comes to my door on Halloween, I can be suckered in — especially when they approach all breathless with anticipation at the very idea of coercing candy out of mean old Ms. Vance simply by lisping “trick or treat.” After dumping half the candy bowl in their sacks, I’ve heard these same sweet little cherubs run screaming down the stairs saying, with no discernable lisp whatsoever, “Yo, yo, yo — I got some awesome candy at that mean lady’s house.”

While I’m not suggesting that you dress in a fairy princess costume to meet with your legislators, I do suggest that you figure out how to be most appealing. Walking into a members’ office and demanding that since a) you pay their salary with your tax dollars and b) they work for you, they should c) do whatever you say without question or d) you’ll fire them is not so adorable. Try suckering them in with a positive approach – then hit them up for all the candy in the candy bowl.
Stand Out From the Crowd: How many Vampire outfits do you think you’ll see this year? Wouldn’t it be nice to see something different? I remember one year I went trick or treating as Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz. OK, not so unusual except that I took my Irish Wolfhound Megan as Toto. I cleaned up. I was eating free candy for months (or at least what I could extract from my mother). The point is that I stood out from the crowd.

How do you stand out from the crowd of people communicating with legislators? Simply by doing things other people rarely do, such as expressing an interest in the legislator’s issues, telling a personal, thoughtful story (instead of a mass-produced e-mail or postcard) and timing your communication so that it coincides with a decision point in the process. In so doing, you are tricking the system they have in place for dealing with the thousands of communications they get per week — and you will in turn gain more personal attention.

Don’t Be Greedy (Or, As a Corollary, Be Grateful): Everyone has had the experience of having a trick-or-treater at the door that wants more than his or her fair share — and actually has the gall to ask for it. While I’m a huge fan of “making the ask”, I’m not a huge fan of asking for too much. Frankly, it turns me off when, in reaction to my presentation of an appropriate amount of candy, a trick-or-treater says “geez, is that all? Mrs. Jones down the street gives everyone five pieces.” It doesn’t make me want to hand out more candy. It makes me want to reach into their snot-nosed little candy sack and take back what I already gave (see, I told you I was mean).
 Anyone “trick or treating” at their legislatures should practice making the ask and then saying “thank you” for what may be received. Effective advocates will wipe that disappointed frown off their face and maintain a positive relationship with elected officials — next year they may be able to be more generous.
Maintain a Reputation for Having the “Good Stuff”: The “good stuff”, in this case, is the really good candy. You know what I mean. Real Snickers’ instead of the Costco brand generic “Snuckers”. Popcorn balls dripping in honey. M&M’s, Starbursts, Hershey’s Chocolate bars — mmm, I’m getting hungry just thinking about it. Just as candy is the currency for Halloween, information is the currency for the policy process.
As an advocate, it is important to have quality information on the issues you care about. This includes whatever national facts, figures and trends you can get from a national group, state-level information and, most important, stories and statistics about how your policies impact people on a district-by-district basis. Your legislators are eager to know people in their districts who can answer their questions on specific policy issues. Become one of those people by doing your research — and developing a great reputation as a repository of good information.
See? Who knew there was so much to learn from Halloween? Now get our there and engage in a little trick or treating of your own with your legislators — you may be surprised at what treats you’ll get if you ask!

***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.

Tuesday, October 30, 2012

Hurricane Sandy- October Surprise?

Life in Washington is quickly going back to normal after being brushed by Hurricane Sandy yesterday- Metro service is being restored, electricity is coming back, and politicos are debating the impact of the storm on the upcoming election.

While certainly there are more pressing matters on the Eastern Seaboard at the moment, it is hard to ignore the fact that the hurricane hit one week before a very close presidential election. Logistically, holding an election one week after Hurricane Sandy could prove difficult in cities and regions still lacking electricity; the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) is reportedly looking into ways to power electronic voting machines in areas without power on Election Day. Hurricane Sandy also halted early voting and absentee voting in several states; Maryland and the District of Columbia had to cancel early voting yesterday and today, and officials are extending early voting hours to make up for the lost time. Though it will be difficult to tell what impact that has on voter turnout, it isn’t impossible to imagine that those who have had severe property damage or are without power may not turn out to vote in as high numbers as they would have otherwise.

Candidates hoping to make a last push in swing states have also been derailed by the storm; both the Romney and Obama campaigns have cancelled events, though Romney has been holding “relief rallies” in Ohio to collect supplies for storm victims. President Obama is off the campaign trail until at least Thursday, as he plans to tour disaster sites in New Jersey tomorrow, though campaign representatives such as Bill Clinton are being dispatched to swing states for events.

Like hanging chads in Florida, political scientists will debate the impact of the storm for years to come. Will President Obama gain traction in states like Virginia because of his response to the storm, or will Romney’s response help to endear him to voters?  If voter turnout is down in impacted states, was Sandy the cause or was voter apathy a more likely explanation? As Ralph Nader certainly knows, these theories are ones that are unlikely to ever be proved or disproved.

***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 29, 2012

How Will Congress Weather the Storm (Literally)?

I think it’s safe to say that Americans are generally discontented with the current level of partisanship within Congress – some even say it’s the most polarized Congress they have experienced in their lifetime. But even in this political environment, you would think that everyone would have to be on the same page when it comes to the safety of Americans in the wake of a natural disaster, right? Well, think again.

When Hurricane Irene hit in 2011, the U.S. government was on the brink of a shutdown. With a lack of available funds for the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) and a newly Republican-led Congress promising to drastically cut federal spending, creating a supplemental appropriations bill for disaster relief became a very contentious issue. While a deal was finally reached, it took more heated debate than one usually likes to see when it comes down to the basic safety of the American people.

We do have to keep in mind that there are a few situational differences between Hurricane Irene and what we are experiencing now. First of all, it is yet to be seen how devastating Hurricane Sandy will be, and FEMA is in much better shape now that it was in 2011 as we weren't riddled with as many tornadoes, wild fires and other natural disasters this year. Also, since it’s an election year, some Members of Congress may react differently than they would have in 2011 if the Hurricane directly impacts their district (sad, but true). And while Congress is not dealing with a government shutdown this time around, they do have to determine what to do about the $1.2 trillion in discretionary spending cuts called for in the sequestration provision of the 2011 Budget Control Act.

Let’s all keep our fingers crossed that Congress can work together to take the appropriate action in relation to the amount of damage Sandy does. And this goes without saying, but please stay safe through the storm!

***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.

Tuesday, October 23, 2012

Conference Apps are Where It's At

Conference smartphone apps are one of the newest trends in the business and advocacy arena. From floor plans to session descriptions to programs and maps, conference apps are a great way to provide a one-stop shop for any and all details your attendees may need to know. Here at Advocacy Associates, we provide scheduling assistance to organizations and associations that are hosting an Advocacy Day on Capitol Hill, an event which is often paired with an annual conference. After being introduced to so many of these great apps at many of these conferences, it occurred to us that we were still only offering physical pieces of paper when it came to congressional schedules (SO early 2000’s), and that it was time to, well, get with the times!

Upon this awakening, we developed a multi-platform smartphone app specifically for our Stress Free Lobby Days program. Participants who are taking part in congressional meetings can download our app to view their schedules, map to their meetings on the hill, check for updates to their schedules, and take notes during their meetings. Not only that, but they can also use the app to find places to eat and things to do in the area for those longer breaks between meetings. Not only does our app provide certain functionalities that you simply can’t get from a piece of paper, but it also serves as a great backup for those who still prefer to use their printed schedule.

If you don’t already provide an app for your annual conference, you may want to consider it for next year. Your attendees will thank you for it, and maybe even come back next year!

If you want to learn more about our Stress Free Lobby Days program and our fabulous Stress Free Lobby Days app, contact me at

***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.

Thursday, October 18, 2012

Preparing for your Hill Meetings: Newbie Edition

Among the groups I work with who hold Advocacy Day events on Capitol Hill, I am always happy to see the smiling faces of those advocates who have participated in a hill day before and have eagerly come back for more! More often than not I also notice that a few newcomers have been added to the mix, which is equally as exciting. For those folks who are first timers, there are a few simple things you need to know that will make you seem like the savviest of hill-goers:

Dress to Impress. This may seem overly obvious, but you’d be surprised at the number of advocates who show up for their hill meetings in khaki shorts and a Hawaiian t-shirt. To play it safe, think of your congressional meetings as business meetings (and in some ways that’s what it is, right?). A full suit and tie (or pant suit for the ladies) may not be necessary – especially during the dog days of summer – but a dress shirt and formal bottoms (no jeans) will go a long way. Think business casual, not Disney vacation.

Be prepared for security lines. If you’ve never been to the congressional office buildings before, you may not know that there is a security check point at every entrance. The lines to get through security can range anywhere from being the only person in line to standing in a 10-15 minute line if you’re getting there around the time that staffers are coming in for the day. Make sure to give yourself ample time to get through a potential line. If you bring a suitcase too large, it won't fit through their scanners and it becomes a big to-do, so avoid that if you can. Also keep in mind that if you have any meetings taking place in the Capitol Visitors Center, you cannot bring food or drink into that building.

There are underground tunnels. The hill is a deceptively large place. On a map it looks like all the buildings are very close, but it can take a surprising amount of time to walk from the Cannon House Building to the Rayburn House Building. And when you’re going from the House side to the Senate side or vice-versa, it’s about a 15-20 minute walk. One of the perks to keeping your House meetings together is that there are underground tunnels you can walk through to get from one House building to the next (and the same goes for the Senate side). On a sweltering summer day in DC, this is not only a great way to shave some time off of your commute but it also helps you stay put-together.

With these tips behind your belt (you know, the one on your dress pants and NOT on your khaki shorts), you’ll be ready to conquer the Hill with ease.

***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.

Wednesday, October 17, 2012

My Own Post-Debate Fact Checking

I am completely and totally unqualified to comment in any way on the "facts," figures and statements about "who said what when" that were raised in last night's presidential debate.  However, with my Master's degree in Legislative Affairs (which hasn't really been very impressive until just this moment), I can say that there's one procedural fact that I saw as a little off.  In short, Mr. Romney doesn't seem to understand the basic logistics of how bills get introduced at the federal level.

Several times during the debate, he stated that President Obama had not "filed" legislation on Immigration Reform.  The term filed implies (at least in my mind) that the President can introduce legislation.  Or, at least, that there's a formal, constitutionally (or rules-oriented) process for the Executive to put stuff in front of Congress.

However, the truth is that although the executive can certainly suggest changes to law, he (or she someday) doesn't "file" anything with anyone.  Here's what the parliamentarian has to say about the executive's role in bill introduction:

In modern times, the ''executive communication'' has become a prolific source of legislative proposals. The communication is usually in the form of a message or letter from a member of the President's Cabinet, the head of an independent agency, or the President himself, transmitting a draft of a proposed bill to the Speaker of the House of Representatives and the President of the Senate.
If you want to read all the intricacies of the federal legislative process, you can do so here, but I'm not going to suggest doing it unless you are getting course credit for it.  "Filing" is really a state-level procedure.

I know I'm missing the overall point, which is that President Obama said he would do something on Immigration Reform, but didn't.  And I haven't said anything about how the executive really can't unilaterally achieve much (i.e., that he needs Congress to take action).  And maybe Romney used the term "filed" to refer to that "executive communication." 

This is clearly a question of semantics, but for me it's a little like those movies filmed in D.C. where a character gets on the metro in D.C., rides to the next stop and gets out in the farthest reaches of Virginia or Maryland.  It's a detail that demonstrates a lack of knowledge about the city.  In this case, Romney's use of "filed" may not be a big deal, but it irks this Master in Legislative Affairs.

Watch last night's full debate below.

***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 15, 2012

Why the Lame Duck Session Will be Kind-Of Lame - And Why You Should Still Pay Attention

Avoiding the fiscal cliff.  Medicare reimbursement for physicians.  Our nation's entire agriculture policy. Afghanistan. This is the short list of the issues Congress needs to address in one way or another between November 13th and December 31st.  Yes, they have to solve the entire nation of Afghanistan, or at least the nearly 17% cut in military spending that will happen on January 1st if Congress doesn't act.  In fact, here's the longer version of the lame duck agenda:
  • Sequestration
  • Welfare reform
  • Medicare reimbursement
  • Defense spending
  • Iran
  • Tax cuts
  • Farm Bill
  • Post Office
  • Russia
  • Violence Against Women

Being able to address all this seems, at a minimum, unlikely, given that Congress has not been so successful at getting things done this session.  Only about 2% of the 10,000 bills introduced so far have become law.  Now, let me be clear that this back of the envelope analysis does not include bills that were incorporated into other bills or otherwise moved through the process.  OK, so let's imagine that 5 times as many bills really passed.  That's about 10%.  Still, ummm, less than stellar.

That said, I have to say that I've never been a fan of measuring Congressional success by the percentage of bills passed, even though I just did it.  Anyone who's read my musings for a while knows that I've always held hard and fast to the idea that Congress is designed to be completely and totally inefficient.  In fact, in the eyes of the founding fathers, 10% or even 2% might be too much. 

Given that fact, I'm expecting a whole bunch of punting to be happening in the next few months, and I don't mean football (although it will probably happen there as well).  Advocates must still be on the alert and engaged -- after all, we can't be sure which issues will gain traction.  We also can't know which issues will wind up in traction.  Just don't expect everything, or even most things, to be finally settled by December 31st.

***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.

Thursday, October 11, 2012

At Bat for Advocacy

The baseball postseason is in full swing, and for the first time in 79 years a Washington, D.C. team is in contention (and yes, I am an avid Nats fan). But as we all know, baseball isn’t the only important thing going on in our nation’s capital (elections anyone?). It occurred to me that there are a few takeaways from the game of baseball that can be applied to your advocacy efforts:

1)     Even the best ball players only succeed one-third of the time. Baseball and advocacy both entail a great deal of failure and success, so don’t get discouraged when you don’t see results every single time you ask a member of Congress for something. Just as the baseball season is long, so are congressional terms – you’ll always have another chance to move your agenda forward. Sometimes you are going to swing and miss, but if you stay persistent you will eventually hit a grand slam and get that co-sponsor, get a statement in the Congressional Record, or get that bill passed.

2)     There are many forces at play with every move you make. In every at bat, you have to consider how many outs there are, whether anyone is on base, what the pitch count is, where the outfield is positioned, and numerous other factors. On top of that, you have to try to anticipate what the pitcher will throw you next. Similarly, as an advocate you have to be aware of a number of components as you advance your agenda. When does the bill go to committee? When does the bill go to the floor? Who can be a champion for your cause? Who is on the fence and perceivably swayable, and do you have any advocates with a relationship or constituency connection to that member? If you can anticipate what is coming and develop a strategy around those factors, you will be in much better shape.

3)     A baseball team’s roster is constantly changing, and so is congress. While the makeup of a baseball team changes due to trades, free agency, injuries and dismissals, Congressional seats change due to elections and resignations. It’s important to follow the elections in key districts and do your research when new members of Congress get elected (one good place to start would be, where you can view campaign contributions). Developing relationships with new legislators should be a major focus for any grassroots advocacy effort. Take the time to meet with these members and their staff, invite them to an on-site visit and attend their town hall meetings in the district. Forming relationships early will pay off down the line.

And if you don’t accomplish everything on your advocacy to-do list, just remember – like baseball – there’s always next year!

Monday, October 08, 2012

When Relationship-Building, Reliability is Key

Don’t you hate it when someone tells you a fun or interesting fact and then when you use it in another conversation, and take credit for it (don’t act like you don’t, everyone does it), you embarrassingly discover that the information was inaccurate? Well this may not come as a surprise, but congressional staff hate it too. Like really hate it.

According to The Congressional Communications Report released this summer by George Washington University’s Graduate School of Political Management, Columbia Books, and, one of the largest determining factors in getting congressional staff to meet (and re-meet) with you is whether you can provide “credible, reliable information.” Congressional staffers can have anywhere between 1 and 10 issue areas on their plate, and due to the fluidity of the legislative calendar they usually need to acquire credible information on a certain issue as quickly as possible. When that moment arises where a vote comes up on one of your issues and that staffer is looking for the latest information, they are going to remember that when they met with you months ago that you provided them with reliable information. As a result, when they choose who they are going to consult for information you will be at the top of their list. On the other hand, if you give them faulty information and they use it, they will look bad in front of their boss and likely never consult you again. So while you’re focusing on which pieces of super-useful information you’re going to provide them with, make sure you take some time to make sure that information is also super-accurate. It’s worth the extra time to double and triple-check your facts – It can be the difference between making or breaking a relationship with a staffer.