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. In translation: how nice are you supposed to be? This question is naturally contentious as a m*f*er.

The Players

But before getting to that question, 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. Your mileage may vary depending on topic. 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 through the Justice Dept, 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; unless it's just the more usual 'please don't hurt us' bribe.

The Senate: "I'm not up for re-election for another six years, and I've got a tee-time scheduled with the chairman and the ranking member. And the policy staffer's busy, drink your coffee, talk to the intern and get out." Unless, amusingly, you have a very large campaign contribution to make, or need to deal with 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. Unless it's a wave election, slightly more likely to die or retire than be voted out. Have subpoena and oversight power, legislative authority. On the bright side: Boxer, Sanders, Harkin, et al, ymmv depending on the issue.

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: Pelosi, Markey, Waxman, et al, ymmv depending on the issue.

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. Also use workers as human shields against being forced to clean up own acts. 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 keep in mind, lobbyists are only trigger men.

Very Powerful 'Green' Organizations: "We've really got the most workable solution, getting industry to voluntarily reform itself. We market our advice as brutal efficiency, and we aren't kidding about the brutality. 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 monthly 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 just 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 frighteningly 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 reports, didn't you? Do we need to draw you a f*ing map? Oh right, we did. The planet is boiling and you've got about, say, [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 either 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.


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 act like everyone's already your BFF, 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 and overall messaging?

The result of the Green organizations' collective 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. People getting gacked by nasty, tropical diseases, failed crops, flooded coastlines, this sort of fluffy factinista fooferaw doesn't hold a candle to getting angry campaign donors on the line - that's political reality.

As to whether you will be listened to if you play hardball, not that you won't have to work on your technique ... 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.

If you just play nice, I have yet to be shown that this can do more than nibble 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 presenting your facts more clearly, 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 power and willingness to use it. That's it. If politicians want to change things, they could always decide to reward different behavior. You did see the final Lieberman vote total, right?

Being correct 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 kidding 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 and let the same people who always run things keep running them the way they always have, we will be transported to perfection in featherbeds.

Stop telling us that we will marginalize ourselves by making the big ask, the right ask, even of our friends, right up front, and making noise if we don't get what we want. Wearing a fixed grin and whistling sweet as a bird through the backroom deal phase only works when you own the back room.

Tags: public interest, social activism (all tags)



great post

You've given me a lot to think about, and when I process some of those thoughts I'm going to link to this at Bleeding Heartland.

I think we have to be realistic about our chances of influencing any of the key decision-makers in Washington. They know they don't have to listen to us. The interests we oppose have a lot more power to make their lives unpleasant than we do. So my gut tells me that whether we are polite or obnoxious probably doesn't make a big difference in how effective we are.

I had to laugh yesterday when I called my own Congressman Leonard Boswell's office to ask how he had voted on Dingell-Waxman (I think I know the answer, but I wanted to check). The press secretary cut me off before I was able to finish asking my question. Then, as usual, she refused to call me back. She also refuses to include me on her press release list, even though doing so could in some small way benefit her boss (because I could include Boswell's public events in the district on the weekly calendars I post at Bleeding Heartland).

Obama can offer Clinton the most prestigious cabinet position, but Boswell's office still can't even show common courtesy to the dreaded blogger who advocated for Ed Fallon in the third district primary.

Whatever. I'm not going to lose sleep over this. Boswell's office was never particularly responsive to me before anyway. But my point is that we need to be prepared to get frozen out for a long time if we do voice strong opinions about our representatives.

by desmoinesdem 2008-11-21 02:56AM | 0 recs
Different kinds of freezing out

First, thanks, very much.

Though going back to why you were supporting Fallon in the first place, or why people supported other primary challengers, it was because they wouldn't respond. They might have still taken the calls, but it didn't matter. Boswell's staff are clearly just being more honest about it now.

They take the calls of the people who, as you note, have the power to make their lives miserable. That means the paper whose reporter they can't stand, the annoying rep from the company that employs half the district, whatever. We can only make them (sort of) miserable around election time.

Need to invent a better legislative thumbscrew.

by Natasha Chart 2008-11-21 03:57AM | 0 recs

I shall bookmark this one for future reference.  

It is the government's job to regulate industries for the common good, particularly over the long term, against the companies' shareholders who will always insist on short term profits. (I learned that in PoliSci class in college.)  It's seems so obvious yet we have an entire political party that sides with the shareholders every time.

by GFORD 2008-11-21 05:46AM | 0 recs
by Alice Marshall 2008-11-21 01:21PM | 0 recs


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