Too often, individuals and their organizations jump feet first into a new session of Congress without getting an idea of where they ultimately want to end up. That isn’t to say they don’t know what they want to do, certainly if you are taking a check you should know what your organization’s goals are, but rather they don’t know what they are realistically able to accomplish OR they don’t have a firm grasp on how they are going to accomplish it. When starting a new session of Congress, especially during an election year, it is important to sit down and come up with a legislative strategy for the year. Here are some things to keep in mind:
– What are the exact legislative objectives I am trying to achieve? Something as vague as “improve Metro transportation between Maryland and DC” will cause individuals and organizations to waste time once the Session gets busy trying to define and explain what is to happen. Make sure that your legislative language is good to go and ready to be shopped at a meeting. If not, sit down within your organization and start hammering out the specifics as soon as possible. Second Session Congress is more about doing than debating. By the end of the year, legislation should always have been introduced or discussed among Congressional offices so that, worst comes to worst, next Congress already has a kick-off point.
– What is the required legislative mechanism to achieve the above? Does it require a separate bill? Can it ride a larger piece of legislation or be added as an amendment? If so then must it be on the same topic? Approps bill? Executive Order? Write down everything that can possibly house your language and keep track of the movement status for each. Luck is preparation plus opportunity and this is one way to create your own luck.
– Is it the issue’s “turn” in the cycle? Some issues are brought up simply because they are required to be addressed every few years. Education is a perfect example of this. Just this week new language has been introduced on the House side to reauthorize ESEA (NCLB for some) because it is expiring. If it isn’t handled this Congress, it will have to be done at the beginning of the next. Thus is it going to education’s “turn” for discussion and major Congressional focus. It is easier to get on the schedule if it is an issue’s turn than if it isn’t.
– How time intensive is the topic going to be? Is every Congressional office going to require some kind of outreach? Does it need to get 2/3 co-sponsors in both the House and Senate? If you only look at the legislative calendar, is there Pokies enough time to meet with all the required staff? In an election year, always pretend that no one is going to be around except for days on the legislative calendar. While this obviously isn’t the case, the staff you’ll be required to meet with and who make decisions are going to be out this year more than usual. If time is short, try to think of larger meetings. Staff briefings aren’t always well attended or offer the individual impact of a one-on-on, but they do allow for talk with multiple offices at the same time.
– Risk vs. Reward Because there is less time available to exert influence there is less time to manipulate each part of the process. Take this into account when determining each risk vs. reward. Asking for less money might secure a few more votes quickly, but you will still end up with less money. Changing 10 regulations can be easier to accomplish than changing 15, but the 15th might be a deal breaker for someone in the coalition. Weigh the potential gains of asking for less to get more done vs. not doing enough to make the difference that is being aimed for.
– Political Capital While planning, try to get a sense of the amount of political capital that will be expended during the year. If it is decided that this is going to be the make or break year, then prepare to call in IOUs as needed. If not, then make sure not to start burning through favors in what turns out to be a half-hearted pursuit.
Plan for a major sit-down during the first week of August for a frank evaluation of where the topic is at and what needs to be done. That way during the rest of the Recess, adjustments can be made and you can be ready for a huge push out of the gate. Then, act like Congress is going to end in mid- September. After that point everyone will be home campaigning and it will be nearly impossible to get everything (or, for that matter, anything) done in a timely fashion.
Following the election, there might be a lame duck session, but never bank on it. Depending on the outcome, one party will usually hold-up a lot of work because they will be in a better position to negotiate next year when their new members get into office. Either way, consider lame duck sessions like Overtime in the NFL: yes the game is still going on, but it could be over before your team even gets a chance with the ball. Regardless of what happened, remember the following: there is always another Congress coming up, so final victories are few and far between. Luckily, so are the defeats.