Wednesday, January 21, 2015

State of the Union 2015 and Why It's Important

Last night, President Obama delivered his second-to-last State of the Union.  As you’re probably aware, the president delivers an address to Congress at the beginning of each new year detailing his perception of how life in America has been progressing and areas in which he sees room for improvement.  This speech precedes the release of the President’s formal budget proposal each year.

Watch the 2015 State of the Union here.
Read a transcript of the 2015 State of the Union here.
Watch the Republican Party’s official response to the State of the Union here.

In his speech, the President focused on what he termed “middle class economics.”  Essentially, this is the idea that if people work hard and are given equal opportunities, our economy thrives.  He addressed numerous issues including childcare, education, workers’ rights, energy and the environment, jobs, infrastructure, healthcare, veterans, race relations, and foreign policy.  He stressed the importance of compromise and overcoming partisan gridlock in Congress.

Yet, thinking about the context of last night’s speech, there are a few important factors to keep in mind.  First of all, Obama is now a lame duck president.  This means that he no longer has to worry about running for reelection, nor does he really need to concern himself with the politics surrounding midterm elections.  For this reason, he has little to lose politically based on the assertions he makes, so last night we saw him speak emphatically about his stance on some fairly divisive issues like immigration reform, health insurance, and Wall Street regulation.  He even threatened to veto legislation he believes would be a step backwards in these areas.   Furthermore, it’s important to keep in mind that Republicans took control of the House of Representatives last November, giving them control of both chambers of Congress.  The State of the Union is meant as a guide to give Congress a sense of the President’s priorities, but it is in no way legally binding.  Because Republicans now hold the majority, it is unlikely they will follow many of the recommendations he laid out.

This year, President Obama has projected February 2nd, 2015 as the date he will present his formal budget for funding federal programs to Congress.  Again, this budget is not legally binding and a republican Congress is unlikely to pay a great deal of attention to it when crafting legislation for appropriations.  It will, however, provide further insight into the Administration’s priorities for the President’s last two years in office, and you can expect many of those priorities to mirror the ones laid out in his speech last night.

So, you’re probably wondering why this really matters to you.  As an advocate, think about the issue or issues you care about.  Did Obama mention them in his speech last night?  Did he speak favorably about them?  Are they divisive issues?  Answering these questions will give you an idea of how you will need to talk to both democratic and republican Members of Congress about your issues.  While their individual stances will be more nuanced, it is likely that, at least on the surface, democrats will agree with the President’s agenda and Republicans will oppose it.  Understanding the state of our Union, as it stands, can help you craft your personal legislative advocacy plan for the final years of Obama’s presidency.

Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Communicating with the Capitol: Be Grateful

We've all been in situations where we've worked really hard on something and just want that hard work to be recognized, right?  I know that if I put a lot of time and effort into a project or an idea and it goes entirely unnoticed, I’ll find myself questioning why I worked so hard in the first place.

On the Hill, Members of Congress and their staff are constantly bombarded with requests from all sides, to the point where they can’t possibly meet everyone’s demands.  For this reason, if an office follows through on something you've been requesting, it’s incredibly important to make note of what they've done for you and thank them for it.  It may seem self-evident, but gratitude goes a long way with staff members who spend much of their day trying to assuage cranky and frustrated constituents.  Therefore, if an office takes the time to work with you on an issue, introduce a bill you’ve been advocating for, set up a hearing, or something similar, make sure you recognize the work they have done and show how much you appreciate their willingness to help.

Because of the somewhat constant stream of whining Hill staffers endure on a daily basis, I can pretty much guarantee that simply saying thank you and recognizing their hard work will go a long way.  They certainly won't question their decision to work with you and they will be that much more likely to help you out in the future!

Tuesday, January 06, 2015

Communicating with the Capitol: How to Effectively Use Social Media

These days, it seems like success is often measured by followers on Twitter or likes on Facebook.  Seriously, how good do you feel when your tweet gets retweeted or someone comments on that picture you posted over the weekend?

Social media has been the cool new thing for a while now, and it seems like it’s here to stay.  When it comes to communicating with your representatives, it can provide unique opportunities in two primary ways.

1.   Staying up-to-date:  Social media is a great way to figure out where your Members of Congress are and what they’re up to.  They’ll post about events they’re attending, when they’ll be back in the state or district, and what issues they’re working on.  This is a great way to stay in the loop about the latest news and possibly even find out about events like town hall meetings you may want to attend.
2.   Voicing your opinion on a current and specific issue:  Because social media is constantly changing and updating to reflect trending topics, it’s a great way to voice your opinion on issues or legislation that are being discussed in real time.  Unlike letters, which need to go through a screening process that takes nearly two weeks, social media posts can reach the office instantly.  Many Congressional offices have added a staff position to their press team with the sole responsibility of monitoring and responding to social media.  With the creation of these positions, it means that offices will definitely see your comments, and if those comments are constructive and thoughtful, they will likely even respond.  Social media makes quick back-and-forth dialogue possible in a way that previous communication methods (letters, phone calls, and even emails) have not.  And while you may not always get a response, the more active you are on social media (in a polite, respectful, and thoughtful way!!), the more likely the staff will recognize your name and pay attention to what you have to say.

(Added bonus:  Several social media press staffers on the Hill have told me that their bosses, aka Members of Congress, love social media and are constantly looking at their own pages.  For other types of constituent correspondence, such as email and phone calls, they simply get briefings from staff about the important ones at the end of the week.  Thus, being an active social media poster makes it that much more likely your legislator will see your opinion first hand!).

One other tip!  As I’ve said before, Members of Congress want to hear from their constituents.  Social media makes it difficult to tell who is a constituent and who is not.  If you have any way of identifying yourself as a constituent (i.e. providing you town name or zip code in a post), the office is much more likely to pay attention to your post and even respond!

Social media is a great way to actively engage with legislators.  It in no way replaces the importance of emails and phone calls, but it can certainly enhance your engagement and provide effective alternatives for getting your voice heard in Congress!