Wednesday, September 20, 2017

Christmas, in September

On December 24, 2009, the Senate gathered for a 7 am vote on Christmas Eve, and unless you’re really in love with the idea of a high-stakes sleep away camp, the idea of being potentially stuck at work overnight on the day before Christmas probably doesn’t appeal to you. Unfortunately, that may be a reality for Congress and its staff this December.

To keen observers of DC, these huge legislative battles at a deadline are nothing new, even around holidays. Congress rang in 2013 with a desperate Senate vote on the so-called ‘Fiscal Cliff’ two hours into the New Year. Recent legislation means that we appear likely to face December deadlines for more legislation needed to keep the federal government funded and open. Other action will be needed to ensure that the government has the authority to borrow money in order to make payments on the National Debt. Without an agreement on those bills earlier in the month, most of DC may be spending the winter holidays talking about amendments and cloture votes, rather than egg nog and holiday cheer.

This current Congress (the 115th) will be returning in January 2018, but in the holiday periods that immediately follow elections, the departing Congress may engage in some ‘Christmas tree legislating’, where dozens of unrelated ideas get tacked onto “must pass” bills, much like ornaments on a Christmas tree. We’re less likely to see that this year, but it’s helpful to remember for the December 2018 season.

If you want to learn more about the Congressional schedule, you can view the House calendar here: https://www.majorityleader.gov/2017-calendar/  and the Senate calendar here: https://www.senate.gov/legislative/2017_schedule.htm

Monday, September 18, 2017

Happy Constitution Day!

Every September, the United States has a day set aside to celebrate one of its two most well-known founding documents. Despite constantly being upstaged by the Independence Day and the Declaration of Independence in July, Constitution Day commemorates the Constitutional Convention of 1787 each year.

At the time, Americans were governed under the Articles of Confederation, and when delegates met in Philadelphia that summer, they originally intended to revise those Articles. Instead, we ended up with a brand new form of government.

To learn more about Constitution Day, visit some of these resources:


The National Constitution Center, in Philadelphia: https://constitutioncenter.org/

Friday, September 15, 2017

"To spend more time with my family..."

Over the last week, several seasoned members of the House announced their intentions to retire, and a few more may soon follow. While much of the discussion may be related to the political impact on next year’s midterm elections, don’t forget that, in most cases, they’re not leaving Washington immediately. They’re still your representatives, tasked with listening to and serving you!

Some Members will run for a different office, but many will not. Those that are leaving politics will be less focused on political calculations and fundraising, and potentially have greater time to focus on the nuances of policy. Many departing members will be thinking of their legacies, and could be seeking to achieve some long sought policy goals before retirement.

If your member of Congress is retiring, now could be the ideal time to reach out for a meeting to discuss topics where you may find some common ground. Some staff could soon be moving on from your Congressman’s office to other opportunities, which makes this an ideal time to re-connect with them, because they could provide a connection to a different congressional office, or an introduction to the person taking over their legislative portfolio. Keeping those staff relationships is always a wise move. Sometimes, they may even wind-up working for the incoming Member of Congress for your very district.


Connect with your legislators by visiting house.gov or senate.gov!

Tuesday, September 05, 2017

Back to School, er . . . Work!



Perhaps it's my inner-child, but this time of year always inspires me to learn new things. In that the spirit of gaining knowledge, I thought people might be interested in this handy-dandy guide to the legislative process from the House Rules Committee. It's a step-by-step overview of how a bill becomes a law. Citizens and GR professionals should know this stuff for (at least) two reasons: first, it's much easier to win the policy game if you have an inkling of the rules; and, second, it will give you a good sense of all the places where a bill can die--sometimes a terrible, painful death. Referred to multiple committees? Death. Voted down by the Committee or Subcommittee (or, more likely, not considered at all)? Death. Doesn't get past the House Rules Committee? Death. Voted down or not scheduled for the floor? Death.

You get the point. It's like legislative Game of Thrones this time of year. Cersei would be completely comfortable on Capitol Hill. So, as we dive in to a busy September full of fights over debt ceilings and appropriations, advocates and GR professional alike will need to protect and nurture any favored legislative initiatives. And the best way to do so is to know the rules!

Stephanie Vance

Tuesday, June 20, 2017

“I ask unanimous consent…”

With the Senate crafting, discussing, and debating its version of the House’s American Health Care Act, there has been a great deal of reporting about how the Senate works (or doesn’t). Many Senators from both parties are frustrated with the “behind closed doors” process for drafting legislation, and Democrats in particular are responding with tactics designed to slow down the consideration of the bill. One prominent approach is to object to all (or nearly all) of what are known as “unanimous consent agreements.”

What does this mean? Believe it or not, the Senate considers most legislation by unanimous consent, meaning that every Senator agrees not to slow down the discussion on whatever question the Senate as a whole is considering—from a vote on a piece of legislation, to the debate time allowed for a bill, to the time the Senate will meet the next day. In short, when a Senator says “I ask unanimous consent that. . .,” he or she is asking everyone to agree not to engage in long discussions or even to filibuster. They do this because normal Senate rules allow for extensive debates—sometimes seemingly forever. It helps the Senate get more work done.

That all changes whenever a Senator says “I Object!” to a proposed agreement. He or she can force the Senate to operate under the normal procedures. Imagine, for example, ongoing objections to unanimous consent agreements on everything from convening the next day at noon, to renaming a Post Office. Every one of those questions becomes eligible for thirty hours or more of debate. That’s why Democrats, who are eager to prevent the AHCA bill from coming to the floor, are using this strategy. They can tie up the Senate for days or weeks.

All of this is in keeping with the adage that the United States Senate is the “saucer that cools the tea” (or coffee, depending on your preference). It is designed for more thorough and sometimes ponderous discussions. As the Senate moves towards upcoming votes on health care legislation, look to see who is objecting to these Unanimous Consent Agreements and see how the normal functioning of the chamber might be slowed and altered.

-- By Jared Payne, Advocacy Associates

Tuesday, June 13, 2017

The Top Ten Things Elected Officials and Their Staff Hate to Hear

Number 10: But I thought my appointment was with the Senator. 
Never, ever indicate that you are disappointed to be meeting with a staff person. On Capitol Hill, having a good relationship with a staff person can make or break your cause.

Number 9: Here’s some reading material for you – our 300 page annual report. 
When meeting with a member of Congress or staff person, try to limit your leave behind materials to one or two pages, and include details on where this information can be located on the web, if appropriate. Offering the information in a file folder with your organization’s name on the label will also help ensure that the materials are put in a file drawer, as opposed to the round file.

Number 8: How much of a campaign contribution did your boss get to vote against (or for) this bill? 
Believe it or not, most staff have no idea who contributed to their boss’ campaigns. Not only is this question insulting, but even if it were accurate, the staff person isn’t likely to know.

Number 7: I assume you know all about HR 1234. 
With thousands of bills being introduced during each Congress, no staff person will be able to keep them all straight. Always provide information on the bill title, number and general provisions when communicating with a Congressional office.

Number 6: No, I don’t have an appointment, but I promise I’ll only take ½ hour of your time. 
Unless it’s an emergency, or you are good friends with the elected official or staff person, try not to engage in the dreaded “stop-by.” Most staff are happy to try to set up a meeting if you are relevant to the office (i.e., you are a constituent).

Number 5: No, I don’t really need anything specific. 
If you don’t ask for something – a bill cosponsorship, a congressional record statement, a meeting in the district, whatever – some staff will wonder why you came by. Updates on your issue are fine, so long as they are accompanied by a request. That will ensure that someone in the office thinks about you and your request for longer than 5 minutes.

Number 4: We have 10 (or more) people in our group. 
Congressional offices are tiny. If you have more than 5 people in your group, you’ll be standing out in the hallway. Plus, having so many people talking at once can dilute the impact of your message. Try to limit your group to no more than 5.

Number 3: What you’re telling me can’t be right. I heard Jon Stewart say otherwise. 
Most staff, or members for that matter, won’t lie to you. They know that lying will get them in big trouble. Sometimes, they may see things differently than you do, but if they say a bill definitely is not going to be considered on the floor, or if there is no such legislation, I’d believe them. A perfect example is a petition that was floating around the Internet about a House bill number 602P from a Congressman Schnell that would impose fees on use of e-mail. There is no such thing as either House bill 602P (that's not even a possible number), nor is there a Congressman Schnell.

Number 2: What do you mean we have to stand in the hall? 
See number 4. A request to meet in the hallway is simply an indication of space limitations. Nothing else.

Number 1: No, I don’t represent anyone from your district. I just thought you’d be interested in what I have to say. 
Members are elected to represent their constituents. Period. If you are not their constituent, you are not relevant to them. Some members do rise to higher positions, but that just means they represent the interest of other members, not the entire nation. Your time is always best spent working with your own elected official and turning them into an advocate for your cause.


-- By Stephanie Vance, the Advocacy Guru, is of author five books on effective advocacy including the  The Influence Game. She is 20-year Washington, D.C. veteran, having served as a Congressional chief of staff and lobbyist. She lives and works in Washington, DC, offering workshops and trainings on effective advocacy. 

Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Haven't we been here before?

CRs and Shutdowns

Unless Congress and President Trump act to prevent it, on Friday night at midnight, funding for the federal government will lapse, and the American public will witness another partial government shutdown. Politics aside, you are doubtlessly saying to yourself, “Haven’t we been here before?” In answering the question, one might look back to the shutdowns of 1995/1996 and 2013, or the numerous other instances in which such a situation was narrowly avoided.

Ideally, the president introduces his budget proposal in February, but it can often be (and frequently is) largely ignored by Capitol Hill. Congress, ideally, passes its budget resolution – a blueprint, if you will – by later that spring. This part rarely happens, and it doesn’t even appropriate any funding. In the House and Senate Appropriations Committees, 12 subcommittees are each tasked with writing bills for their government agencies, and getting those bills passed by their subcommittee, sent to the full committee, as well as brought to and passed on the floor. The bills are supposed to follow that budget that was to have been previously agreed upon by Congress. The House and Senate then negotiate back and forth, agree upon a conference bill, and ensure that the president signs the appropriations bill before the end of the fiscal year on September 30 of each year.

That almost never happens. Only four times, since the 1977 Fiscal Year, has the appropriations process worked as designed. For the 2002 Fiscal Year, Congress actually passed all of its budget bills, but it took 8 Continuing Resolutions (CRs) to get there first. That brings us to where we are this week. When Congress cannot agree on funding, often, they will pass a short-term bill that maintains spending at current levels. The current continuing resolution, to provide appropriations for many government agencies, expires at the end of the day, this Friday, on April 28th.

Congressional leaders and the White House maintain that they are attempting to pass and sign an omnibus bill for FY 2017 containing funding for the entire government passed this week, in time to avert a shutdown, but there are assuredly additional discussions about preparing a short-term CR to allow for more time to negotiate some of the disagreements between the various parties.

With so many interested parties with varying priorities, last-minute budget negotiations can often lead to one faction to include a priority that is anathema to others. Such “poison pills” on must-pass budget legislation have led to shutdowns before. As we move through the week, it’s safest to assume that no policy issue is necessarily safe from the discussion. 


-- By Jared Payne, Advocacy Associates

Monday, April 17, 2017

It's a different year...

Regardless of your politics, it is difficult to deny that one of the themes of the year has been the power of people’s voices. Whether in protests on the streets, in town hall meetings, or in calls to Members of Congress, people have been making news while making their voices heard. The volume of calls coming into Capitol Hill has increased to an extraordinary level.

Contrary to what some may assume, Members of Congress often do love to hear from constituents and are interested in learning about what they can do to help people. When visiting the Capitol, advocates will find that certain strategies can ensure that Members of Congress and staffers are more likely to remember you and your message.

If you have been doing this for a while, you know the importance of having a continual relationship with someone on congressional staff.  It goes without saying that your personal stories, when coupled with an engaged and knowledgeable message go a long way.  Bring facts, figures, and information, but do not let that distract from the heart of your message.  All of this will reflect positively on your reputation as a source of knowledge, as well as that of your organization, and your public policy issue. If you are the most engaged and thoughtful meeting that someone has on their schedule that day, it will be appreciated and remembered by your congressman or senator.

With a new administration and a new congress, it has been a jam-packed spring, and making scheduled meetings has become even more crucial for everyone. If you are going to be a few minutes late to a meeting, reach out, let an office know. In the last couple of months, congressional office schedules have been more in flux than we have seen in the last few years, with occasional last-minute committee meetings or conference meetings. Be prepared for a number of possibilities. Some meetings may be moved to the hallway, or shortened by a few minutes, or others may need to be switched from a meeting with the Member of Congress to a meeting with staff. The congressional offices will do everything they can to ensure there is a meeting, but it’s always good to be prepared to walk and talk if needed.

By keeping those tips in mind your voice will stand out above the crowd, even in a time when so many other advocates and citizens are at their most engaged. 

-- By Jared Payne, Advocacy Associates