Get Leverage with Grasstops Lobbying

It’s one thing to have organized pressure coming from “real” people and having them relay their real concerns and real stories to elected officials. That the essence of “grassroots” lobbying. But it’s even better to pair that with community leaders who matter to the elected officials or other politicos that you’re trying to influence.

That’s where the grasstops lobbying comes in.

It’s lobbying by people who matter to other people who matter, and it can be a force multiplier and add a new dimension to your efforts. It’s not that grassroots pressure doesn’t matter. It does because numbers matter. But if you can match a local organization’s grassroots with a similar network of grasstops leaders, you will see a tremendous leap in the ability to influence legislators.

Grasstops lobbying is effective for many reasons.

It Promotes Accountability

While many legislators may deceive themselves into thinking that they can ignore or fool the average constituent, they don’t usually feel the same about “Mr. Big” – and they don’t want to get on his (or her) bad side. These are people who are thought of as pillars of the local community, organizational leaders or opinion leaders, and they influence other people – which is why politicians usually like to keep happy. They are people who can make life easier for them if they stay on their good side.

It Breaks Through Barriers

Sometimes elected officials can become insulated from grassroots pressure. While many legislators don’t like being bombarded by letters from constituents, they may choose not to read them. But they can’t afford not to take a phone call from the president of the largest employer in the district or the pastor of the largest church.

Similarly, the number of phone calls coming into a legislator’s office eventually becomes irrelevant. All that registers in their mind is that they got a lot of phone calls. However, several calls from key community leaders or even a personal visit will stick out in their minds.

Examples of Potential “Grasstops” Community Leaders:

  • Pastors
  • Large employers
  • Other elected officials
  • Political party leaders
  • Former staffers to other elected officials
  • Major contributors to the elected officials you’re targeting
  • Civic or other advocacy organization leaders
  • Newspaper publishers
  • Opinion leaders
  • People who have credibility with the media
  • Neighbors, relatives or friends (of the elected official)

Think through the list of names that come to mind. Who has the most influence with the officials that you’re trying to influence? Who represent a constituency that your targeted officials can’t afford to ignore? Whose phone calls have to get returned?

The rule of thumb is to identify those who can get directly to your targets, and not just to their staff. Identify those people and approach them about joining your efforts. Some of them might even be classified as “strange bedfellows” politically speaking, but that’s even better as it makes your effort look more diverse.

Keep a running list of the people that you identify, what they care about and who they can potentially influence. It will be a good reference for you when the next issue campaign comes up.

When you get your new contacts involved, make sure that they are informed. They’re probably busy people, so the more that you lay things out and make it simple, the more likely they will be to help. Then incorporate them into your overall lobbying plan.

Grasstops lobbying can be just the leverage you need to make your grassroots efforts pay off.

How to Have a Productive Meeting with Elected Officials

gearsWhen it comes to lobbying, the squeaky wheel tends to get the grease.  And while many different forms of lobbying can produce positive results, the most effective method is to meet with your elected officials personally.

But if you’re going to have a personal meeting with elected officials, you want to do what you need to do in order to get the most out of the visit. You want them to know what you think and why. You want to know what they think – and what they will do. And you want to make it as likely – and easy – as possible for them to agree to say “yes”.

Here are some simple tips to keep in mind that will help you get the most out of it.

Plan Your Visit

Treat it like you would any important business meeting (or at least the ones that you actually prepare for!). Be clear about what you want to accomplish. Identify which members of the legislative body (or council) you need to talk with to help achieve your goals. Elected officials usually won’t give as much priority to people who are not in their districts, so be sure to meet with the ones who represent YOU. If you don’t live in their district, take someone with you who does. Know what you want to say beforehand. Prepare a fact sheet or position paper that you can leave with them AFTER the meeting is over, (along with your contact information).

Schedule an Appointment

The “higher up” the political food chain the official is, the more staff they are likely to have. For local (and some state) officials, you can probably contact them directly. Federal officials with have a scheduler that you will need to contact to arrange a meeting. Explain your purpose and why you want to meet with them. Make sure that you have an understanding of how long the meeting will last. Elected officials typically like them short and sweet. Fifteen minutes is a good rule of thumb.

That’s enough time for you to accomplish two goals: 1) tell them what you want them to do and why, and 2) get feedback so you know what to expect from them, (and if whether or not they need more pressure from others who think like you do).

Be Prepared

Make sure that you have accurate information and material available on your issue. Elected officials have to deal with many issues, and it’s possible that they might not have the information that you can provide. Remember that there are always two sides to any issue (at least), and the more you know about the arguments of the opposition, the more effective your information should be in countering it.

Remember, frame the “problem” to fit your “solution”. Of course this doesn’t mean you have to be an expert. The most important points for you to get across are why the issue is important to you, and that you feel passionately about it. You’re a citizen with concerns. More importantly (to them), you’re a registered voter.

Be On Time and Be Patient

When seeing any elected official, be punctual. But remember, it’s not uncommon for them to run behind schedule or to have meetings get interrupted. If there is an interruption, be flexible. If possible, continue the meeting with a member of their staff.

Don’t Be Intimidated

Don’t let yourself get nervous or intimidated. Sure, you’re on their turf, but you’re also their boss. They work for you. Just remember to be polite about it. You’ve got something they want (your vote…and maybe even your help).

Pin Them Down

Elected officials will usually try to be noncommittal because as soon as they take a position they probably make someone angry. They would rather just listen politely, empathize, then shake hands and lead you to the door. Your job is to get to the bottom line. Sure it’s nice to have the satisfaction of being heard, but where do they stand at the end of the day? Be polite, but pin them down. (For example, “I’m glad that you’re concerned, but will you vote for or against the bill?” or, “I’m glad to hear you agree in concept, but will you cosponsor the bill?”) They may not like it, but they will respect you for it.

Be Political

Most elected officials try to represent the best interests of their constituents, (or at least the good ones do). Whenever possible, draw a correlation between what you want and the interests of your community, (i.e. their district). Show them that you are not the only one who feels the way you do.

They may not want to take your side in order to avoid taking “heat” over the issue, but you could offer to help solve this problem by working to counteract the heat. Offer to write supportive letters-to-the-editor, phone calls to local talk radio, or even send out a press release from your group thanking them for their support. Find out what “cover” they may need to help get them over the line. Offer to work with their staff to get it done. Be helpful and make it easy for them to say yes.

Be Responsive

If an elected official expresses an interest in your issue or request, be ready to answer questions or provide any additional information they may need. Afterwards, follow up with a thank-you letter highlighting your discussion, (especially if they agreed to anything), and include any additional information they may have requested.

***

In our system of government, the squeaky wheel usually gets the grease, and given that the percentage of people who take the time to meet personally with elected officials is so incredibly low, it shows commitment on your part. And it lets them know just how squeaky you might be.

If done consistently and professionally, meeting with your elected officials will help you be a much more effective advocate for the things that you care about. Building relationships with them will not only further your credibility as a citizen (or organization), but it will also provide opportunities for you to have a greater impact for the conservative cause in the future.

Make sure to get the most out of it!

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.

Know the Facts Before You Lobby

resources listDo you know everything that you need to know about what you’re trying to have an impact on?

Before you set out to have an impact on any particular issue it helps to have more than just a thumb-nail view of the facts in order to be able to make a case for what you believe.

Whether it’s plain old citizen-lobbying of a local council, or the multi-million dollar corporate variety, good research is the foundation of good lobbying – but good research can require a lot of work.

The problem for elected officials is the huge number of issues that scream for attention. They don’t have the time to follow the nuances of every piece of legislation, but they put their name, reputation and possibly their career on the line with every vote. As a result, good information is invaluable.

The rule is this: do the work for them.

Politicians aren’t super-human and don’t know everything about everything (you probably knew that already), and can’t learn it all. Though as individuals they may know more about various subjects, most of them are forced to be generalists. So part of the job of good lobbying is to be an expert on the issues you want to advocate.

Things that elected officials need to know about legislation or proposals:

  • The details of any proposal
  • How it changes current law or the status quo
  • How those changes will impact their constituents

Without that knowledge, most elected officials can only hope and pray that they don’t accidentaly stumble into a politically explosive situation, (something most of them try to avoid because they want to get re-elected).

Where do they usually find the information they need to make a decision? A good bit of it comes from educated constituents who have done their homework or who offer the benefit of their own expertise.

In other words, it could be you.  You’re certainly more of an expert on the things you do and the situations you face every day than most politicians.

Spend time researching and organizing information on the issues you want to impact. Then turn it into a resource for friendly elected officials.

Remember, knowledge is power. Get it and use it.

Local Lobbying (or How to Fight City Hall)

local lobbyingHave a problem with local government? You’re not the first and you certainly won’t be the last. But what can you do about it?  That’s were local lobbying comes in.

Keep in mind that there are some key differences between lobbying for local change, versus at the state or national levels.  And there are some specific tactics that you should keep in mind to be more effective in local lobbying.

Unique Aspects of Local Government:

One Chamber: As opposed to state legislatures and Congress, whether you’re talking about school boards, city/county councils or commissions, you’re only dealing with one group of elected officials, rather than two.

Fewer Officials: The typical local government has fewer elected officials to keep an eye on, (the national average is six), versus potentially hundreds at higher levels.

They Represent Fewer People: Local elected officials represent far fewer constituents.  This means that they are more susceptible to organized, outside pressure.

Fewer Targets: When you have fewer elected officials that means that there are going to be fewer “undecided” or persuadable officials that you need to target…possibly just one or two.

Local Lobbying Tips:

Learn the Process: There can be wide variances in the legislative process (from cities, to counties, to school boards), so research how the process works in your area.  Contact your local council or board member and ask for information.  The more you know about the process in your area, the more effective you will be.

Do Your Research and Identify Your Targets: Find out exactly where they stand, and then relentlessly focus all of your time and attention on the undecided/persuadable votes.  When you consider that you’re focusing on just a couple of officials who themselves represent a small number of constituents, this gives you tremendous leverage.

Choose the Right Lobbying Tactics: Phone calls, letters, emails, personal visits, petitions, something else or all of the above?  “What” you do can depend on how much time you have and how many people are willing to help.  Choose those that best leverage your resources.  (You can see some of the basics in my “Nine Grassroots Opportunities” report).

Get to Know Them: Personal relationships at this level of government go farther than at the state and national levels.  Make an effort to get to know them personally.  Contribute to and help the ones who think like you do.  Be active in local organizations that they are involved in (especially the local GOP).  Remember, “politics is people”!

***

You can “beat City Hall” (or any other local government), but you need to do your homework first.  And don’t forget, most state and national politicians used to be local politicians – so investing in local lobbying can pay big lobbying dividends in the future!