Congressional staffers dread those phone calls from constituents asking for members of Congress to help them with a program beyond their jurisdiction. An example would be someone calling his or her Congressman to install a stop sign on a nearby street, or asking a state legislator to oppose the President’s Supreme Court nominee. Too often, citizen advocates waste time delivering their messages to the wrong level of government.
Effective advocates understand that government activity takes place on one of at least three levels. What are these three levels? First, there’s the “local” level: think of your city council, mayor, county commission, local agencies such as transportation or housing or a regional organization. Government activity at this level is usually confined to very narrow geographic areas. For example, issues relating to your garbage collection service, zoning or building permits or property tax rates are usually very local types of functions.
The next level is the “state” level: think of, well, your state government. This would include your governor, your state House and Senate (except Nebraska – you just have one) and state agencies. Policies discussed at this level will generally impact the entire state or large portions of the state. A few state level examples of government activity include funding for and management of state parks, building and maintenance of state highways and, of course, those lovely state income taxes that many people pay.
Finally, there’s the federal level. This is where advocates get to play with Congress, the President and federal agencies like the EPA and the IRS. Government activity at this level is generally very broad in scope. In fact, the Constitution states (and I’m paraphrasing here) that the federal government can do anything “not reserved for the states.” This work includes federal income taxes, creation and funding of national programs like Social Security and Medicare / Medicaid, as well as trade and interactions with foreign countries.
Let’s also not forget the three branches of government (yes, everything in this blog post seems to be coming up in threes). If you remember from your high school social studies/government course, they are: executive, legislative, and judicial. Every level of government has their own version of these three branches. For instance, the federal government has the President, Congress, and Supreme Court; while states have Governor, State Legislature, and state courts; and local governments have mayors, city/council councils, and local courts. Keep in mind the responsibilities of each branch when thinking about whatever particular issues concern you.
Make sure to do careful research before writing a letter, signing a petition, making a phone call, or sending an email to an official. You need to make sure that the official can actually help you with the problem and has the proper jurisdiction to do so. This is one way to turning yourself into a more effective advocate.
- Written by Stephanie Vance, Advocacy Guru