Archives for grassroots lobbying

How the Legislative Process Works

Legislative ProcessLegislating is a messy business. As Otto Von Bismarck once said, “Laws are like sausages, it is better not to see them being made”. But it’s a messy business because it involves people who represent lots of other people with different points of view. And this process has to accommodate them all.

There are a lot of moving parts (and people), and many steps along the way that an idea must take before it can become a law. The result is that it is more difficult to change things than it is to defend the status quo. But knowing how the process works will make you be better equipped to have an influence on the things you care about when the time comes.

Here’s a basic breakdown. Generally speaking, the legislative process begins with an idea or a concern, which might have been passed on to a lawmaker by someone in the general public, or initiated by the lawmaker themselves.

The Federal and State Level:

Committees: The vast majority of legislative work is done on committees. As soon as any measure is introduced by any lawmaker it is usually assigned to the appropriate committee that deals with that subject matter. Public hearings begin here, changes are made, and delays or even defeats are possible.

In most cases committees are where legislation dies, as most bills never make it out. If you have lawmakers friendly to your cause on the committee, they may be able to either help “kill” a bill you don’t like by keeping it bottled up in committee, or help get it passed out to the “full body”.

At this point in the process, members of the committee considering the bill you’re concerned about are your targets for grassroots lobbying pressure. Committee Chairman are even more valuable, as they can usually control which sub-committee (if any) the bill may be referred to and whether or not the issue is even heard by the whole committee, (such as deciding whether or when to schedule hearings on the issue, or an actual committee vote). They can also be critical in influencing how other committee members will vote.

As a grassroots activist, you can have an impact at this stage by personally contacting committee members and attending hearings on the proposal and speaking out to help shape public opinion.

The Legislative Calendar: Once favorably recommended by a committee, a bill is scheduled by legislative leaders (usually by a “Rules Committee”) for floor debate by the body. Your involvement at this point could include contacting the key decisions makers, such as the Speaker of the House, Senate President Pro Tempore, Rules Committee members or legislative aides involved in these decisions. Focus on the people controlling the legislation.

Debate and Floor Action: Once a bill passes out of committee it is usually put on a schedule for debate by the full chamber (such as a House or Senate). At this point, all members of the legislative chamber can have an influence on the final outcome by participating in debate, offering and voting on amendments, and then ultimately voting on the bill itself. (At the local level, passage by an entire council or board is usually the end of the process.)

Referral: In cases at the state and national level, where the legislature is divided into two bodies, (House and Senate), when one chamber passes a bill, it is then referred to the other chamber for consideration, where the process starts all over again. This presents you with either another challenge or an opportunity, depending on which side of the issue you’re on, (offense or defense).

Conference: Conference committees are usually comprised of two or three members from each legislative chamber, and are created when there are differences between the versions of a bill passed by both bodies. The purpose is to iron out these differences and submit back to both chambers a version that they think can pass. Because there are so few of them, conference committee members can have a tremendous impact on the final shape of a bill, meaning you can concentrate your lobbying activity on a very small group of lawmakers at this point.

Final Vote: Once the conference committee report is submitted, each chamber will then usually hold a final vote on a bill. If it passes both chambers with a simple majority it is then forwarded to the chief executive, (the President or a governor).

Executive Action: Usually the chief executive is required to take action by a certain time (either with a signature or a veto) or the bill automatically becomes law. Some states allow a “line-item veto,” which enables some provisions to be vetoed without killing the entire bill. If the bill is vetoed, the legislature has an opportunity to attempt to override the veto, (usually by a 2/3’s super-majority). This could make a huge difference to your strategy, depending on whether you’re on “defense” or “offence”. A strong expression of support or opposition at this point could help a chief executive decide whether to sign or veto a bill.

The State Level:

Although the state legislative process is very similar to the federal level, there are some differences. Generally, state legislatures have shorter legislative sessions than Congress, and state legislative officials have either very little or no staff. And the fact that these bodies are smaller and closer to home gives organized conservatives enhanced opportunities for activism and influence.

The Local Level:

While many of the same elements apply at the local level, there can be wide variances in the process in various cities, counties or school districts. The biggest difference from the federal and state level is that there is usually just one chamber to deal with, (a council or a board), rather than two. Of course that means few people to lobby…and officials who are elected from smaller districts and are more susceptible to organized local pressure.

To research how the process works in your area (or for your county or school board), contact your local council or board member and ask for information.

Conclusion

One of the most important things to understand about the legislative process is that it is designed to move slowly…and that’s a good thing! A slow, multi-step process helps prevent the passage of bad legislation. And considering how many bad laws we have on the books despite that fact, imagine how much worse it would be if things moved fast.

From a strategic standpoint, the key thing to remember is that a long process makes it far easier to play defense rather than offense. That means that it is easier to defend the status quo than it is to get something passed. In order for a bill to become law, it must “win” at virtually every step in the process, whereas those trying to “kill” the legislation often only have to win just once.

Knowing how the process works, understanding when, where and how (and on whom) to bring the heat is vital to having an influence on public policy at any level in our system. At each step there are different people who can advance or hinder your cause.

Invest the time in getting to know the players at each step along the way. It will pay dividends later.

The Fundamentals of Grassroots Lobbying

grassroots lobbyingWhen you are working to try to influence elected officials there is a long list of things that you can do, but there is a shorter list of basic grassroots lobbying principles that you should keep in mind in order to be more effective.

Here’s a checklist…

Identify Your Targets

Before you start storming barricades, find out exactly where elected officials stand on your issue, and then relentlessly focus your time and attention on those who are undecided or persuadable. When you are able to focus on just a few officials who themselves represent a small number of constituents, this gives you tremendous leverage.  (see tips here)

Get to Know Them

Just like every other area in life, personal relationships matter. How well do you know the people that you are trying to influence? The better you know someone, the more likely that you will know how to approach them. What’s important to them, and why? How do they usually come down on most issues?

Get to know them on a personal level if possible, (it’s always harder to say no to someone you know). That’s why being involved in the political process helps.

Finalize Your Message

Before you set out to lobby or campaign on any issue, you need to settle on “what” you want to say. Frame your message in a positive light. Give them the information that they need about your issue. Let them know why it’s important to the people that they represent, which should make it important for them. And make it easy for them to say “yes”.  (See tips here and here)

Play to Your Strengths

Choose the grassroots lobbying methods that make the most of your current and likely resources. Whether its post cards, petitions, email, phone calls, personal visits or all of the above, be sure to choose tactics that best fit your strengths and what you and other supporters are most capable of doing successfully.  (see tips here)

Don’t try to do everything. Focus. It’s better to do a few things really well than to attempt to do a lot and only manage a half-way job. It doesn’t help your case to look ineffective.

Be Personal and Spontaneous

Generally speaking, the more personal and/or spontaneous the contact is, the more effective it will be – but the harder it may be to generate big numbers. For example, a stack of thirty postcards can be viewed as just “pieces of paper’, but thirty personal letters, or thirty people showing up at a meeting, (or at their office), creates a more vivid and lasting impression. It’s easier to get thirty people to sign postcards, but harder to get them to write their own letters or go to a meeting. Don’t just go for “quantity” because it’s easier. Try to focus on “quality”.

Let Them Know What You Will Do

Of course we always want to let politicians know how we “feel” about various issues, and well we should. But it can be even more effective if you let them know what you will do. For example, let them know that you intend to contact every registered voter in your neighborhood; or have ten people write letters to the editor; or have everyone in your church show up and protest outside their office for a week; or that you will contact everyone you know to organize an effort to recruit someone to run against them in the next election if they don’t support your efforts. Also be sure to let them know what you will do to support them if they support your issue.

Be careful not to come across like a hothead and ramp things up too quickly. Depending on where they are on the issue, slowly turn up the heat and build pressure.

Multiply Your Efforts

The more the merrier, so enlist others in the effort, (why should you have all the fun – or do all the work?). The larger your group of fellow malcontents becomes, the more resources (including time, money and extended networks) that you will have to draw from. Actively recruit! Don’t be shy. If you are upset about it, chances are someone else is too.

Build a Team

More people means more (and hopefully better) grassroots organization and a bigger impact. Once you’ve got a group together, organize it – and don’t forget to delegate! The more organized you are, the better that you can leverage the resources that everyone brings to the table.  It also helps build the conservative political farm team.  (see tips here and here)

Say Thank-You

Most people don’t contact a public official unless they are upset about something. If you take the time to thank those who do right – even publicly – they will remember it. It’s a cheap investment that can pay big dividends down the road.

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No matter what grassroots lobbying techniques or tactics that you might decide to use in your efforts, they will all generally revolve around these principles. Think of this as the basic checklist.

Make sure that you’re covering the basics!

Choosing the Right Grassroots Lobbying Methods

Grassroots Lobbying MethodsAs the old saying goes, “there’s more than one way to skin a cat”. So it is with trying to have an impact on your government. There are lots of ways to go about it, but there are tradeoffs between different grassroots lobbying methods that you should be aware of.

Generally, the more personal and spontaneous the action the more influential it can be, but the harder it can be to generate big numbers. For example, it’s easier to get thirty people to sign a pre-printed postcard than it is to get them to write their own letters.

The type of lobbying that you should choose to do depends on your situation.

Before deciding which methods you’ll use, give some thought to the resources (current and likely) that you, your group or your cause can bring to bear. Make a list.  This will give you a better idea of your strengths. Choose those that you’re best equipped for and that everyone is most comfortable with.

Don’t try to do everything. Focus. It’s better to do a few things really well than attempt to do a lot and only manage a half-way job. This can make you look weak.

As a guideline, here is a list of lobbying techniques in a general ascending order of effectiveness:

  • Petitions: either printed versions that you distribute to get signed, then collect and deliver to your targets, or online versions (so long as you can print a list of those who have signed).
  • Pre-printed post cards: cards that you’ve had pre-printed with a message about your issue and pre-addressed to targeted officials…needing only a signature from a supporter.
  • Personal letters: sent from supporters to targeted officials based on some pre-written “talking points” on the issue that you’ve provided, (encouraging people to put things in their own words).
  • Phone calls: made by supporters to targeted officials, working from pre-written “talking points” on the issue.
  • Town-hall meetings: holding a meeting in your area on the issue and inviting targeted officials to attend and answer questions.
  • Personal meetings: individual supporters go meet personally with targeted officials.
  • “Lobby day” at the legislature: large groups of supporters go to meet with targeted officials on the same day.
  • “Grasstops” lobbying: any of the same personal types of contact, but made by individual supporters who are also very influential or well known in the community.

Also, don’t forget one of the most often overlooked lobbying techniques: saying “thank-you”. Meaning, remember to thank those who are helpful or “vote right” when you need them. It will be that much easier for you to go back to that well the next time if you didn’t poison it this time by being rude or forgetful.

Remember that you can use online “groups” from services such as Google, Yahoo, Facebook or Ning to coordinate your activities. And don’t forget to leverage your efforts by focusing your time on officials where you can have the greatest impact and not to waste time on “hopeless” elected officials.

In the end you want to use the methods that you have the resources to use well. And focus them where they will have the greatest impact.