A DFH's Map of DC

You are here. Your policy goals are ............. there.

How to get there from here?

If you're interested in process, there's this excellent Sunlight Foundation guide to Congress which can help guide you to the committees of interest. And if you want to get in on policy, you want to get in at the committee level; a lot has been decided and given away long before the typical bill makes it to the floor.

No one in your state on the relevant committees? You could get involved with an organization that keeps state-specific, or even congressional district-specific, mailing and contact lists to mobilize people who do have the desired ZIP codes and agree with you on policy, before the floor vote and general mobilization are called for. What? The organizations you're involved with don't do this? You could always attempt to prod them, gently, with something pointy.

I make some assumptions in this. For one, that you're keen on what, for lack of a clearer term, we could call the Public Interest. Good policy that benefits the many, has no cohesive constituency, and is probably against the narrow, financial interests of the few. I assume that your resources and probably time are also fairly limited, otherwise, you could just start your own lobbying firm.

So given those assumptions, we always come around to the question of tone and attitude. This question is naturally contentious as a m*f*er.

The Players

But before getting to that, let's detour back to our map. Between you and your policy goals, imagine a big moat followed by a dread desert, steep mountains and deep chasms. There's a sign posted at the start of all this and it reads, "Here there be dragons."

If you were interested in, say, environmental policy, this is a partial list of those you will meet along the way starting next January, both generally and in particular to your cause. Also, an enumeration of their useful assets, including attitudes, in a legislative firefight.

The President: "Yes we can has new puppies." Is better than you, has throngs of adoring supporters who will defend his every action, even if that action were to be ridiculous. Also has rulemaking authority within the regulatory agencies, enforcement powers, world's largest military, power to appoint federal judges, bully pulpit. Will these all come into play? No. Impressive? Yes. Generally eco-friendly, but a fan of clean coal, aka, a bribe to the coal industry for the privilege of their allowing forward movement on environmental policy.

The Senate: "I'm not up for re-election for another six years, and I've got a tee-time scheduled with with the chairman and the ranking member. Frak off." Unless, amusingly, you have a very large campaign contribution to make, or have one of about 30 reasonably useful Senators, this is about how responsive the Senate is to grassroots pressure on most issues, even in election years. Have subpoena and oversight power, legislative authority.

The House: "It's election season, and while I'd love to help, I have to appeal to moderates in my district. Btw, are you from my district? No? Here, help my new intern practice her listening and nodding skills." In translation, moderates == major employers in the district, or people with big campaign contributions from Anywhere, USA. Always campaigning. Have subpoena and oversight power, legislative authority, blank check to Treasury. On the bright side: Waxman, Markey, Pelosi, et al.

Polluting Extractive Industries: "We're terribly sorry about that mine collapse this morning and the unforseeble deaths of those half dozen miners. Know that they died not in vain, rather, in glorious service to the nation we all love, keeping the lights on and the factories humming under our beautiful Star Spangled Banner." Godzilla. Use workers as human shields while recklessly endangering them. Have complete lack of morals, scruple, human emotion, empathy, or capacity for shame. Also have f*ktons of money and high-powered lobbyists who've been writing the laws governing their industry ever since the 1994 lobotomy of Congress. Argue that they're powerless in the face of consumer choice and personal responsibility, work tirelessly to prevent consumers from having better choices. Can walk in and ask for billions of dollars in kickbacks without being accused by anyone important of being greedy welfare cases.

Polluting Manufacturing Industries: "Ah, well, I understand about that new law you want to pass. Shame it will force us to lay off 20,000 workers in [Congressman's District] and make us uncompetitive with [Foreign Country], but see if you can pass it, anyway." Varying levels of morality, capacity for shame, 'good' actors hamstrung by lack of level playing field for virtuous behavior, which they nonetheless campaign against enforcing. Major asset that they generally make useful things and could be reformed, though it would probably require a WWII-style industry repurposing effort. Lobbying efforts comparable to the extractive industries, but remember, lobbyists are only trigger men.

Very Powerful 'Green' Organizations: "We've really got the most workable solution, getting industry to voluntarily reform itself. Read all about it in our glossy, 138 page annual report." Brought to you by WalMart, General Dynamics, GE and the American Grocery Manufacturers, these greenwashers are about as far from dirty hippiedom as it's possible to be. Which is to say that your Senator will gladly fit them into their busy schedule between golf and their weekly obeisance to Dominion Power. Have a sh*ton of money and influence. Keep other organizations in line by threatening to use their media connections to spread stories about a fractious and divided Green movement that's split between extremists and reasonable pragmatists. Are bipartisan, which is to say that they don't care whether their backers hate the peasantry or merely don't understand why they won't switch to eating cake.

Moderately Powerful Green Organizations: "Is my tie on straight? Is this thing on? No? Good. Erm, all right everybody, simmer down back there. I know we're trying to save the world and everything, but if we get too noisy, we might make our allies look bad. You know how much of a political liability we are. Just smile along as we work behind the scenes, everything's fine. If it turns out badly at the end, we promise to issue a sternly worded statement about how we expect better next time." Have massive donor and activist lists, outstanding public credibility. Which go almost entirely to waste because they're embarassed by their own existence. Have strict code of Omertà with regard to injecting environmental issue discussions into high-profile or breaking news cycles. Often bend over backwards to be bipartisan.

Small Green Organizations: "If we can mobilize a few thousand calls, okay, a few hundred, we might be able to secure $5 million in funding for this really great urban-rural partnership program. Don't say anything too out there while you're at it, you'll get crushed like a bug." Diligent, perhaps meticulous, operate on shoestrings, cunning, the unnerving stamina of their underpaid staff and volunteers, and whatever public interest they can mobilize.

Scientists: "Look, you read the results, right? Do we need to draw you a f*ing map? The planet is burning down around your ears and you've got about, oh, [looks at watch], seven years, ten months, 2 weeks and ... just forget it. It's bad. Fix it. You have the technology, literally, we figured it out for you, it's just a matter of working the bugs out of the applications or ramping up for economies of scale. And now I've got to run a regression analysis on this data. Melting ice sheets wait for no geek." Bright, earnest, precise, good at academic infighting, but reticent to engage other cultures. Many of their best arguments are buried behind expensive, subscription-only firewalls, not that they see any of that money.

Grassroots Activists, Bloggers, DFHs, Voters, Other Riff-Raff: "Man, this is b*s*!" Thumper. Have power to incite public outrage, affection. Are very cute. Provide any auxilliary support available to Green groups that doesn't come in the form of f*ktons of money.

Attitude

It's right around this time, when Democrats get more power, that calls for civility rise up like mushrooms in an Olympia, WA cow pasture after the Spring rains. "Remember to be nice and polite, and treat the Democrats like they're already on your side, or no one will listen to you," activists are told.

This is a two-edged argument. On the one hand, it's far better when actually calling or writing your representatives to avoid coming off like the musty cranks who still, I am not making this up, write Sen. Kennedy nasty notes about Chappaquiddick. But what about your communications with the general public?

The collective result of all the Green organizations' posturing and cringing together gives the impression that, although there is a massive crisis looming, everything is fine. The people who should be taking care of things are taking care of things. Nothing to see here. Move along.

This disarms public outrage, leaving the movement in the position of sending Thumper to take on Godzilla, and without Thumper's most formidable weapon.

"But we have to be positive!" Yes, and we have every reason to be, about many things. For one, the solutions really are out there. We do know what needs to be done and we have the technology to make it happen. There's even, though barely, enough time to fix things.

Unfortunately, there's also political reality. This is determined by the money, power, habits and timidity of the various players. Science and cause-and-effect reality hardly rate, or haven't done in a long time, in the top influencing factors.

As to whether you will be listened to if you play hardball ... consider that Sen. Lieberman kept his gavel on the prestigious Homeland Security Committee because he threatened his former colleagues with, probably, completely defecting to the other side or resigning and letting a Republican governor appoint a replacement. He may have worded it politely, but it was a substantively nasty position.

Consider that the first thing any industry does when regulation that may cause an alteration in their business comes up is to list how many jobs they'll have to shed. "Do what we want or Jane the Lineworker loses her mortgage payment and health coverage." The actual statements ooze civility, but are again substantively nasty.

If you don't play hardball, I have yet to be shown that this can have more effect than nibbling around the edges of the problem. You aren't going to compete in terms of money and prestige with the other players, and the general public isn't going to lift their heads up from the pile of bills they're buried under to pay attention to a cause that's going along swimmingly without them.

Maybe you could work on your messaging, and maybe if you do, then finally, your representatives will really 'get it' about how important this problem is. Because no one has ever thought of that before.

Maybe you could ask even more nicely, since the problem with all previous efforts and other activists is that they just seemed too noisy and fractious. Because no one has ever thought of that before.

Really, who are you kidding? The people who win political fights are either the squeakiest wheels or the ones with the most substantive power and willingness to use it. That's it.

Being right isn't enough.

Being smart isn't enough.

Being good isn't enough.

Being polite is a round f*kton short of being enough.

But to those who would insist that it is enough: Stop lying to me, yourselves, and would-be activists everywhere, by saying that if everyone takes a seat and sings a couple rounds of Kumbaya with their cheery elected representatives, we will be transported to perfection in featherbeds. Stop lying and telling me that it's all pie and roses if we'll just nod along and let the same people who always run things keep running them the way they always have. The coal industry didn't go home and give up because their favorite political party got crushed, they're going to get to work on the other guys.

Stop telling us that we will marginalize ourselves by making the big ask, the right ask, even of our friends. We don't have the cash to get things done the other way.

Tags: public interest, social activism (all tags)

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