Learning how to lobby Congress
by Shai Sachs, Sun Jul 26, 2009 at 07:02:57 PM EDT
Tonight I attended an Organizing for America phonebank. Together with other Massachusetts volunteers, I called voters in Maine to encourage them to call Senators Snowe and Collins and ask them to vote for a public option.
The event had all the trappings of a election-focused phonebank, except that our end goal was a bit different, and our failure rate (measured in refusals, and judging only from my own limited experience) was a bit higher. As I dialed, it occurred to me that effectively, we were learning to do something that the progressive movement knows very little about - lobbying Congress via mass mobilization. I thought I'd put down some notes about the lessons that I hope we'll learn from this effort, and my long-term view for this new style of governance.
Prologue - Progressive electoral campaigns
With the benefit of hindsight, I think we can look back at 2003 - 2008 as a period when the progressive movement learned to do something that no one had ever done before - create a modern, distributed, broad-based, successful electoral campaign infrastructure. The campaign machinery that progressives developed in that period was not the same media-obsessed, telegenic campaign of the Clinton years; nor was it only the product of offline, on-the-ground machine-based organizing that elected Democrats from Roosevelt through Johnson. Instead, progressive electoral campaigns in this era blended together offline organizing, broadcast media, and online organizing and activism.
But as distinctive as the role of online organizing was in progressive electoral campaigns, I think it was overshadowed by the broad-based, one-on-one, ground-game approach of those campaigns, which online organizing enabled. The ground game is nothing new in campaigning, but the degree of stranger-to-stranger contact in this wave of campaigns was unprecedented. Calling strangers on the phone, driving across state borders to knock on doors in a foreign neighborhood, and going to a house party without a familiar face in the crowd were not rare experiences for a lot of progressives. To be sure, there is a lot to criticize in some of these tactics, and friend-to-friend contact is far superior in many cases, but I think this brazen notion that a progressive campaign could just attempt to contact everyone was the defining characteristic of progressive campaigns.
Along the way, the progressive movement learned a lot about how to conduct such a campaign, and a lot of new tools and tactics were developed and perfected. The online house party, friend-to-friend fundraising, and modern voter file database systems were among the most important advances in this style of campaigning.
Learning How to Lobby
Now that we have consolidated power at the federal level, it's time to govern. The lion's share of governance work is lobbying Congress, but we have, essentially, no experience whatsoever in how to do that.
Allow me to qualify that. We have no experience whatsoever in lobbying Congress, from a position of strength, with the benefit of online organizing. Since 2000, our lobbying position has essentially been a defensive crouch, and the years 1995 - 2000 weren't all that hot either. The last time Democrats held so much power at the federal level, Google did not exist and the White House made a splash by giving President Clinton an email address.
Lobbying Congress from a position of strenght means we need to encourage Senators to vote for something, not against something. Lobbying with the benefit of online organizing means that we have the capability to include vast numbers of people in the lobbying process, in a way that is entirely unprecedented. Just as progressives learned how to massively expand the battleground and to engage lots and lots of people in an electoral campaign using web-based technology, I think progressives need to learn how to massively expand the conversation around important pieces of legislation, and to engage lots and lots of people in the effort to lobby Congress.
To be sure, progressives have lobbied Congress in the past. But to date, these efforts have largely been focused on the small lobbying effort that progressive interest groups can afford, and the public pressure we can bring to bear in the media and with rallies. We are, essentially, lobbying Congress like it's 1999.
There have been some very tentative steps taken towards incorporating online activism into lobbying efforts. Some of these, like the endless petition emails, are not particulalry inspiring or effective. Some of the most recent steps are, I think, extremely exciting and signs that we are slowly but surely learning how to lobby in an entirely different way. I'll mention them further on.
I think we are headed towards a new kind of lobbying effort, whose basic approach is to perpetually engage as many people as possible in making their views on important legislation heard, using all the traditional means of contacting Congress - office visits, phone calls, letters, rallies, letter-to-the-editor campaigns, and so on. And to make that effort possible, we will need to learn a few important lessons.
Lobbying vs. Electioneering
Deval Patrick first started talking about converting his volunteer corps into a citizen-lobbyist corps in late 2005. Unfortunately, that effort turned out to be a flop. I don't want to delve into Massachusetts politics circa 2006, but suffice it to say that lobbying is very different than electioneering, and I don't think Patrick or his organization gave enough thought and deference to that problem.
From a mobilization point of view, running an electoral campaign is relatively straightforward. There's a clear objective (get more votes than the opposition); the tactics are well-known and performance is readily tracked (make phone calls, knock on doors); there is a clear deadline; and for high-profile campaigns, there is a built-in supply of volunteers, and, in many cases, there's a physical location where volunteers can actually show up and work. That's not to say that running a campaign is easy, but the structure of an election makes mass mobilization relatively simple.
By contrast, lobbying is devilishly tricky. The substance of the bill is constantly changing; there are a lot of hurdles, in the form of committee and cloture votes, and therefore many objectives; the tactics are rather muddled (even calling a Congressional office can be rather intimidating); the deadline is anything but clear, as floor votes can be delayed for any number of reasons; the media profile of a legislative item is lower than that of an electoral campaign; and there is usually no physical location where supporters of a bill can gather to support it.
What's more, the lobbying strategy is fluid and very tricky to pin down. In an election, the strategy is simple: get a lot of votes. But in a lobbying effort, the strategy is not at all obvious: should we try to persuade Republican senators to switch, as OFA is doing? Or should we try to create a Progressive Block in the Senate?
What we're learning
Luckily, I think we are already learning to adapt to this new terrain.
To begin with, we've learnt that a broad-based progressive lobbying campaign needs a clear goal, or a "line in the sand" beyond which compromise is not acceptable. Moreover, this line in the sand must be clearly grounded in progressive principles, in order to motivate the progressive base to get behind that goal. Because legislative battles have a lower media profile than elections, and because most people are not used to the concept of being called in order to support a piece of legislation, and because it's possible to water down a bill and kill it with a thousand paper cuts, the elevator speech for a piece of legislation is vital. We need to be able to explain to prospective supporters what we want and why we want it, and to have that explanation make perfect sense, in something like thirty seconds.
With regards to health care, we have done a reasonably good job, although improvements are possible. Our line in the sand is the public option, and there is impressive unanimity across progressive groups about that goal, but we could improve our communication about it. To begin with, "public option" is not self-explanatory; it only makes sense to someone who has been following the debate closely. Moreover, the reason we support it is muddled. The script I received tonight from Organizing for America, although not without its merits, claimed that we want a public option in order to provide "competition for the traditional health insurance companies". That's classic conservative framing, and it's not at all inspiring or easy to defend. (Who cares about competition when you just lost your COBRA, or you have a relative in intensive care and have no idea how you'll pay for it?) What we are really talking about is a public health insurance plan, and we want it because it will allow anyone to buy quality, affordable health insurance.
Another lesson learned is that the numbers we are shooting in a lobbying campaign are different than those we need for an electoral campaign. Success in federal elections is measured in the millions of votes. Success in a lobbying campaign is measured in the hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of phone calls. Consequently, we probably do not need the same scale of stranger-to-stranger contact that we need in an electoral campaign; a lobbying campaign should start as a base mobilization exercise, garnering phone calls from core progressive supporters and all of their friends and relatives.
On the flip side, the universe for a lobbying campaign is much broader. The only thing required to lobby Congress is a phone line, and preferably an address in the representative's district or senator's state. There is no voter registration deadline or age limit. That means that stranger-to-stranger contact doesn't need to proceed from voterfiles. Instead, it can use targeted commercial mailing lists, or relevant government databases. For example, it might be an interesting exercise to call through the business owners listed in an incorporation list retrieved from a secretary of state's office, in order to get support from small business owners. (Although actually, incorporation lists are rather over-used; other lists might yield better results.) For similar reasons, there are limitless possibilities in online outreach. For example, it wouldn't be too difficult for HCAN to craft a Google Adwords campaign targeted at people looking for information about health insurance plans online, and to encourage those people to call their senator to support a simpler approach to insurance.
Finally, lobbying is, in some ways, a considerably more tangible and concrete effort. An election is a mashup of a cult of personality and a six-degrees-of-separation story about progress ("if you elect me, and we keep our majority, and the speaker allows the bill to come to a vote, and we can convince the Senate to pass the bill, and we get it out of conference...."). But a piece of legislation can have immediate and dramatic effects on someone's life, and the storyline is much simpler and more direct. Such a storyline can become the exposition that comes after the elevator speech for a bill.
The cutting edge
Although we are still taking baby steps in our attempt to facilitate broad-based citizen lobbying, I think there are some very exciting new tools which will be key in making this effort possible:
- Advomatic's Click to Call tool, which allows organizations to deploy an easy-to-use "call your senator" web-based widget on their website. The tool allows organizations to track calls, and doesn't require users to look up phone numbers or even make a phone call (Advomatic calls you, and then connects you.) I've used HCAN's Click to Call widget, and it is very, very slick.
- Crowdsourced public whip-counting, like Stand with Dr Dean. The technology behind this application is very simple - it could easily have been written during Dean's presidential campaign - but crowdsourced whip-counting is a great idea which allows the progressive base to lobby while doing something that's actually very important to the overall effort.
- FriendRoots is a new Facebook app developed by Max Gottlieb and announced on Dailykos a few days ago. The application allows you to locate Facebook friends who are constituents of (or whose home towns are represented by) swing senators on ACES and the health care bill, and to email those friends to ask them to email their senators about ACES and the health care bill.
- Tweet Your Senator is an interesting mashup just released by OFA; the idea is to send your senator a tweet about health care reform, and there's a tiny bit of magic which uses your zip code to look up your senator's Twitter username. This kind of tool, together with other Twitter-petition applications, has good promise for making the petition process a bit more public and viral.
The Future of Lobbying
Broad-based participatory lobbying is not easy to do, but I am actually very excited about it. For all the difficulties and challenges posed by this kind of work, it offers us a chance to really govern together, in a manner that is much more interesting than broad-based participatory electioneering. Although I didn't have a lot of success on the phones, some of my fellow callers were doing pretty well, and having some very interesting and valuable conversations with voters.
For the past few months I've watched the health care and energy bill debates with horror, partially because the degree to which Congress is for sale has been so readily apparent, and partially because the conversation has been so frustratingly remote, focused as it is on Washington. For a long while it seems that there was really very little that could be done, and that we would have to sit back and watch as the lobbyists had a field day.
While I don't think that broad-based lobbying is the silver bullet that will stop corruption dead in its tracks, I do think it is a promising new approach to legislative battles. And by engaging us in conversation about live, ongoing, tangible policy issues with our neighbors and friends, I think it brings us a little closer to the whole point of self-governance.