Posts Tagged ‘legislation’

Legislative Strategy: What to do when Congress isnt in session

Wednesday, April 4th, 2012 by Vbhotla

Thanks to a wacky legislative schedule, and this being an election year, there are going to be many, many days where no one is around on Capitol Hill, either Members or staff. The current schedule has many holes in it where Congress won’t be in session, with many whole weeks off. As a result, there will be longer than usual stretches without legislative activity.

However, that doesn’t mean that there isn’t something to be done. These weeks when Congress isn’t in session offer valuable time to reassess legislative strategy (or plan new ones), catch-up on work that is currently outstanding, and hold meetings with the staff that is available. Here is a list of things that can be done during a non-session week that will pay off in the long term:

– Handle any and all outstanding requests for information that might have piled up over the last few weeks.

– Update contacts lists, both for staff and other lobby groups that you are working with. Databases like Lobbyists.info are essential here and cut down on wasted time.

– Map out future legislative activity and what you can do about it now. For example, if you think that you will have a chance to introduce new language to an upcoming bill that wasn’t predicted before, start drafting the language now so you will have a jumping off point and save valuable time during the session.

– Do a frank assessment of resources that you have or are currently using. How are those resources currently paying off and how are they helping your long-term legislative strategy? Too often people get tunnel vision and focus on the help of one office or Member to the detriment of their topic. Is everyone you’re working with doing their jobs or should you shift more focus elsewhere? Remember, you should have a clearly defined strategy that will get you to a specific destination.

– Speaking of shifting focus, is it time to shift from one body of Congress to the other or one Committee to the next? Downtime gives you a chance to tailor you game plan to the phase of your strategy. So if you know that you are getting out of SubCom soon, what do you need to do to get out of Committee?

– Take (primarily staff) meetings that you think will help pay off in the long-term, especially if you have any requests that you foresee will require an existing relationship.

– If you meeting targets aren’t in town, unless it is very urgent, I recommend against leaving messages or e-mails during a break. When Members and staff get back they usually have a long, long list of things that NEED to be done and it is very easy to get lost in the shuffle. Even the best staffer has only so much time in his/her day and if they don’t triage their schedule, then things will pile-up to an impossible point.

If you go into a break with a plan, rather than just trying to use it to catch your breath, you can get a head start on the competition before they can gather themselves.

Casualties of the System

Friday, March 2nd, 2012 by Vbhotla

Rep. Norm Dicks’ (D –Wash.) retirement announcement today, along with Rules Chairman Rep. David Dreier (R -Calif.) and Sen. Olympia Snowe’s (R – ME) shocker earlier this week, is a symptom of a larger problem in Washington, and one of the main reasons that retirements are up this cycle: being in Congress just isn’t as fun as it used to be. By any measuring stick, fewer things are getting done in a timely and regular fashion and people, both inside and outside the Beltway, are getting fed up with it. As a result, smaller problems are piling up on any number of legislative issues and fewer people feel like they have made a difference. Just talk with any staffer or lobbyist who has been in D.C. for more than 20 years and ask if all the technology that we have now have allowed them to accomplish more.

According to many of those staff, one of the reasons for this is that the nature of the fight between the parties has changed. Now the goal isn’t to win and get your legislation passed, but to not allow the other side to win. When Carl Perkins ran the House Education and Labor Committee, his standing order was that unless it would hurt one of the Democrats on the Committee, let the Republicans have the issue. As a result the members were actually civil to each other. One former member often told the story of the first time he met Speaker of the House Sam Rayburn. During a committee meeting, he said something that would be considered tame by today’s standards to a member across the aisle, but it got the freshman Dem summoned to the Speaker’s office. As he went to sit, Rayburn told him “I didn’t say you could sit down. I heard what happened in Committee and I’m going to tell you that we don’t speak to other members that way.” I can only imagine what Rayburn would have done if someone heckled President Truman during a State of the Union.

Part of the change in tone is due to a more “in your face” type news system that is constantly being broadcast. The dirty secret of 24/7 news is that really isn’t 24 hours of news being made every day, so anthills have to be turned into mountains for all the prime-time hours to be filled up. The rocketing influence of Twitter only ads to this phenomenon. One Senator a few years ago told me that it is Electronic Cigarettes “a lot easier to turn the other cheek when you are only hearing it once.” The changing format of the shows we get our news from has only exacerbated the problem, as Jon Stewart pointed out years ago. Since the news is constantly running campaign coverage because it draws eyeballs, the members, even if they are “safe” and not engaged in 24/7 fundraising, feel the sword of Damocles at all times. It is a lot harder to cut the guy across from you a break if you are only thinking about what will happen in November… 5 years from now.

Speaking of campaigns, increasingly gerrymandered districts are also having an increased impact. Dems controlled the House for more than 40 years with strangely constructed districts, yet most people would agree the debate was much more civil during much of that time. Additionally, the horrible apathy that voters have for the process gives the most partisan voters an outsized influence. That more people can name Brittany Spear’s ex-husbands than their own representatives is just an example of why both parties have to move further left or right. If only the wings of the parties are going to come out to vote in a primary, why care what the “average” person thinks?

Since the voters aren’t really watching (or rather doing anything about it), the checks and balances of the system have been thrown out of whack. These days neither party, despite the lip service they give, actually follows the rules. Between things like fired parliamentarians and former Majority Leaders saying that the “parliamentarian doesn’t run the [expletive deleted] floor, we do!” there is no longer a true referee for the game. Kind of gives the process an “inmates running the asylum”-type feel.

Sooner or later the pendulum will swing back to a system based on compromise, not extremes. At least no one these days is shooting or fist fighting anyone on the House or Senate floor (even if it has gotten close). Even when compromise was part of the M.O. of the day it still wasn’t as wonderful as the nostalgic, rosy-colored glasses “old timers” would have one believe. However, Members and staff, despite likely being able to make more in the private sector, signed up for the job to make a difference, and looking back on a career of only partisan fighting isn’t that appealing. No one wants to look back on a career and see they were a casualty of a system that won’t let anything happen.

Election year legislation: Legislative planning

Thursday, January 12th, 2012 by Vbhotla

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.