This is a continuation of a series I started right after Netroots Nation, and then I put it on hold until after the election. During Netroots Nation, I experienced a lot of "firsts" in my life... first time throwing a kegger and getting busted by the cops, for one. But also my first time lobbying!!!
I knew I was planning to hang with my pal Judith2007 during the week of Netroots Nation, but I never expected it would land me in the Texas state capitol, shooting the shit with a Texas legislator - and a rightwing Republican at that!!! I am no longer a lobbying virgin, I guess you could say.
Well, Netroots Nation contributed to this "first" in more ways than one. I met up with some folks from Consumers Union in the Exhibit Hall, and next thing you know, I'm on a plane to New York to meet with 60+ other activists from around the country and get trained by Consumers Union to be a more effective activist.
I'd like to share what I've learned, and ask your help to use this information to make our blog community more effective in getting the things we want.
Judith2007, if you don't know, is a lawyer and a sustainable farmer. She spoke on my panel last year at Netroots Nation, and she's one of my favorite Kossacks around. She raises turkeys, chickens, sheep, and horses on her farm.
Here's a little guy who greeted me the morning after I arrived in Austin. He's part of the reason Judith and I went to the capitol that day. There's a "voluntary" program called the National Animal ID System (NAIS) that threatens to wipe out small farmers like Judith - and if not wipe them out, pose as an unnecessary burdensome and intrusive pain in the butt to them.
NAIS is creeping towards mandatory all over the country and it's not only destructive because of the damage it will do to farmers like Judith - it also burdens down the government as they put their resources into tracking animals when they really should be focused on ACTUAL food safety solutions. You know, like regulating factory farms so that we don't end up with E. coli in our spinach, or keeping an eye on imports so American infants don't die from melamine contamination like what's happening in China.
So off we went to the capitol with a handful of fliers for a conference Judith was organizing. The goal was to invite all of the members of Texas' legislature and perhaps shoot the shit with them or their staffers while we were at it. Judith's an old pro at this - she's been to the Texas capitol so much that she seemed to know EVERYONE by name - but it was certainly a first for me.
In one of the office we stopped in, the Representative was actually there. He knew Judith and he invited us into his office to sit down and chat. (And HE kept apologizing for taking up OUR time... are you kidding me? I kept thinking, "No, other way around buddy! WE are grateful for YOUR time!")
He and Judith were talking about a bill they wanted to pass through and I was just soaking up all of the strategy as they tossed it around. Apparently, in the House there was another guy who wanted to sponsor the bill, and it seemed to be a good idea to let him. Over on the Senate side, though, who could we approach to take the lead?
One of the things that came up a lot in the conversation was the fact that legislators jurisdictions overlap. So, let's find a Senator who covers an area that is represented by several Representatives on our side.
And what about the U.S. Congress? Maybe the person in the state government we have on our side isn't on the right committee to help us out - but what about the U.S. House member or Senator who represents their same area? Perhaps they can make a call to those people to get them on our side. After all, they represent the same constituents.
As we left, Judith whispered to me, "He's a Republican. Really conservative." Really? Because he totally agreed with us that NAIS is bad. I guess it was the conservative small-government idea that gets him to our side on that. BTW, I'm not mentioning his name here because I can imagine that perhaps it's politically damaging to be a righty who gets nice things said about them on DailyKos :)
He made several comments against "Big government conservatives" and also commented on the idea that he's pro-business but that doesn't necessarily make him pro- YOUR business (i.e. he's not into making a law that will put your competitor out of business - something he's often asked to do. He's into helping businesses prosper in general, without playing favorites between them.) Overall, he seemed to be a very ethical, good guy - even if we disagree about a lot of things.
So flash forward a few months to late October. I got friendly with the folks at Consumers Union (they publish Consumer Reports magazine) at Netroots Nation and we stayed in touch afterwards. I'd already been on an email list that included some folks who work on food issues for Consumers Union, so I was familiar with their work.
As a blogger, I often find it difficult to gain any traction on my issues because, well, I'm a blogger. I go to conferences and events and everyone but me works at a non-profit. I am often asked "Who are you here with?" Umm, me. Myself. Sometimes I say "La Vida Locavore" (my blog) just to give an answer.
But the fact of the matter is that when I'm trying to gain influence anywhere, it would really, really help me to have an organization backing me up. At least it would show that I'm not the only person interested in my issue. That's one place where Consumers Union fits in. The only limitation is that they deal exclusively with consumer issues, so your opposition to the Iraq war isn't something they would take up, but if you care about something that affects consumers, they WILL help - just contact them and go from there.
The following is what I wrote up after the training session by Consumers Union on influencing Congress:
As much as we think our representatives oughta know everything about every issue, that's not quite a human capability. Instead, they have staffers who do the grunt work and advise them on the pros and cons of each bill, and even on how to vote. To communicate your message to your representative, you need to know who does what in their office, so you can most effectively make sure that your story makes it up the command chain to the top.
- Legislative Correspondent - This is the bottom of the totem pole in the office. They work to collect information about issues and about what constituents think on those issues.
- Legislative Aid - This is the next step up. This person will have a portfolio of issues they are working on.
- Senior Legislative Aid - This person is the next step up from the Legislative Aid.
- Legislative Director - This person is ultimately responsible for all of the issues that are being handled by everyone below them.
- Chief of Staff (sometimes called the Administrative Assistant) - The top dog in your representative's office. This person knows the member of Congress very well and can even recommend how they should vote.
Also note that the staffers aren't just interested in the pros and cons of issues but in which groups of people support or oppose them. If you can show that parents, small business owners, farmers, and doctors all support the same side on your issue, that will carry some weight. Because of this, it is VITAL to build coalitions around your issue in D.C. Always be on the look out for who you can work with (even - in some cases - groups that you normally can't stand... who would've thought that Kroger and I agree about the need for rBGH-free labeling???).
Your point of contact starts with a receptionist or in a mail room. While the person answering the phone might be very nice, they aren't the one you want to talk to. You need to work with them to find out which staffer actually works on your issues so you can talk to them.
Some issues may be cut and dry, so it's very obvious for the receptionist who to connect you to. For example, if I call about a straight up agriculture issue, they would put me in touch with the ag staffer. Other times it may be less straightforward. Who in the office worries about childhood obesity? Yes it has to do with food, but there's no food staffer and there's no food committee. You need to help them correctly assign you to the right staffer by giving them a quick summary of your issue (not a long, drawn out explanation).
Your job is to help the staffers do their job. Think about it. If you give them information that would require a LOT of work for them to analyze and write up to share with your representative, that might not happen. If you can give them some quick bullet points, those bullets might make it all the way up to the representative when they assess the pros and cons of the issue.
Furthermore, politicians LOVE personal stories. So what's your personal story? They aren't interested in your life history, but if you have a relevant story that clearly illustrates why this bill is needed (or why this bill is totally unacceptable), they want to know. Also, how would your story have been different if your desired bill had already passed?
For example, my mother taught a preschool student whose parents both worked at Burger King. This little boy was 73 lbs at age 3. My mom suspects his parents feed him nothing but Burger King. Programs like WIC or the WIC farmers' market nutrition program or the national school lunch program could make the difference for him in providing him with the only healthy food he eats all day.
By working with the staffer, you can be a resource for them. You're not just a constituent calling to say "I want healthier foods in schools," you can also be the one telling them what food your kids have in their schools and what statistics or case studies you've found that supports the need for healthier school food. By making their job easier to do, you'll make them appreciate your help. They'll actually want to listen to you!
Also, over time you can form relationships with staffers. Don't you pay more attention to friends than just random strangers and co-workers? I know I do. When I visited the Texas State Capitol with JudithM, we walked around to each of the representatives' offices and she often knew their staff by name and even knew enough to ask details about their lives (like "How is so-and-so's new baby doing?") You can bet that type of touch counts for something.
I finally asked a question I've wondered for a while: there are different ways to contact my representatives - what's the best way? The answer:
- In person
- Fax or email
- Phone call
Also, form letters or emails are given much less weight than those you write yourself. The staff is trying to assess how much you care about the issue by how much work you put into contacting them. Signing a petition is easy. One-click online actions are easy. Writing a letter yourself and putting it in an envelope with a stamp is a lot more work. If you do that, they assume you care more. Also, giving them a pile of physical letters that they can look at visually to assess how many constituents care about an issue makes an impression!
NOTE: Send snail mail to the district office, not to DC. All letters going to DC get delayed because they are checked for anthrax.
If you are sending a form letter - and that's OK to do - make sure to change the subject line of the email and change a sentence or two of the email at least. When yours isn't a carbon copy of everyone else's, it'll show you care more and it will get more attention.
Most of the tips here are given assuming that you will actually speak on the phone with a staffer or meet with them in person and (hopefully) develop a long term relationship with them. However, the letters and emails make a difference so while you're having the occasional meeting with your staffer or even your member of Congress, make sure that your friends and family are all sending in letters that support your point!
You know how you don't want to find out that your friend got engaged by reading it on Facebook? Well, your staffer buddy doesn't want to find out any surprising news about you and your issue by reading it in the Washington Post. If you are going to engage the media, let the staffer you're working with know first as a courtesy.
Also, when you talk to the media, try to focus on the positive and absolutely focus on the issue. Getting side tracked by sharing that your think your representative is a totally useless hypocrite is NOT going to help get their support for your issue even if you give the world's best reasons why they MUST pass your bill.
What would be good for your representative is to help them be the hero by fixing a major problem with their vote or support for your bill. If you give them a compelling reason to think there's a problem that must be fixed and that they can fix it by voting for your bill, you're golden.
Most of what I have written here assumes that you'll be working with your representative's district office. My rep's district office is less than 5 miles from my house. Obviously I'm not going to DC on a regular basis. Therefore, I won't see much of my representative while Congress is in session.
During recesses, members of Congress come home to their districts. This is an excellent time to arrange a meeting with your representative or Senator. Even better - give them a forum to talk to many people! For example, invite them to speak at a meeting for the organization you work with.
Last but not least comes the fact that you only have one member of the House and two Senators, but there are 535 people in DC who make policy that affects your life. Sometimes your member of Congress is the key go to person on an issue but often they are not. When that's the case, you may start with your representative's office and have them put you in touch with the right person for your issue even if it's someone from another district or state.
Pay attention to which committees your Congresscritters are on, and which committee is hearing the bill you actually care about. When your member is on the committee, you've hit the jackpot. If not, make sure you find a way to work with the right committee. Bottom line: a bill's sponsor will care A LOT about the bill passing, so if you can lend your support they will be appreciative and receptive to you even if you aren't in their district.
Some of this is a bit odd for me as a blogger. For example - I contacted my Congresswoman's office and spoke to someone, and basically they want me to work with a local group that they already have a good relationship with. That makes some sense... if all of us constituents can come together in a coalition and decide what we collectively want, then we can approach the Congresswoman with more power and take some of the work out of it for her (i.e. we're not making her broker compromises between us). As I said before, usually I represent no one but me, and if others want to join me, well, rec my diary :)
Also, staffers can really SUCK sometimes - and they aren't elected so we can't vote 'em out. I heard a story of one staffer who has been around for decades who makes constituents CRY. Most aren't like that, of course (and thankfully my Congresswoman's staffers seem nice), but the point is - this all takes on a whole new level of complexity once you start trying to make friends with Congresscritters and their staffers... and if you get pissed off, writing a diary about how you're pissed off ain't the way to go!
So now that all of this is out there... what I'm interested in is how we as bloggers can take action on this information? Can we coordinate with one another so that we've got people identified in each district to communicate with Congresscritters? I don't really know what the next steps are but now that the next election cycle is a few years off, we've got some time before we vote out the bums in the primaries and we're stuck trying to work with what we've got for the moment. I would very much appreciate your comments on where we go next.