When we get frustrated with the way things are going, and perhaps especially when there’s a government agency between where we are standing and what we need to get done, chances are that as we approach a slow boil, we might just say, “There oughta be a law!” Yep, just saying . . .
Chances are, though, there already is a law, and it’s at least partly a source of your frustration, because that law resulted in an agency making a rule . . . or two . . . or a whole doggone slew. What to do?
How about jumping in and become part of writing and advocating for legislation at your state legislature? Our perception of being just a solitary citizen with little, if any, influence over the legislative process is way off the mark. The reality is that very few citizens make use of the many opportunities open to us. Feeling powerless, most simply leave it up to the paid lobbyists and big campaign donors to call the shots. That’s the last thing we should do for legislation that’s important to us.
State legislatures, individual legislators, and legislative staff are generally far more accessible to small organizations and individual citizens than their counterparts in Congress. (we’ll deal with how to work with Congress in a future article.) As with anything else we do in business, a large part of your effectiveness is going to depend on developing friendly working relationships with individual legislators, legislative staff, and organizational leaders and lobbyists who share your values and interests.
You can get into the citizen lobbyist role at any time of the year, whether your legislature is in session or not. If you want to be effective across the broad range of your interests, this is not going to be a one-shot deal. You will have opportunities to meet and talk with individual legislators throughout the year, and there are a lot of things you can do to get the ball rolling.
In most states, your legislative district is represented by one senator and two representatives or delegates. Many of them hold town hall meetings in person or via conference call throughout the year. When a town hall is taking place in the district, you should attend in person. Before the meeting starts, introduce yourself to the legislator, letting him or her know what your primary legislative interests are. If you have a business card, hand one over, and expect one in return. (If you don’t have business cards, you should have calling cards to offer instead.) Request a one-on-one appointment to discuss your concerns in greater detail. (This gives you a chance to meet at least one legislative assistant (LA), who may become a key to your success.) Come prepared to take notes, and actually take notes during the meeting. This demonstrates that you have a serious interest in what your legislator is doing and promising to do on behalf of constituents.
Be prepared to ask well-reasoned questions about your core issues. Have a one (or at most two) page summary of the information you want to provide your legislator, and be sure his or her LA has that summary before the meeting is over. Trade cards with the LA, too.
Always remember that the people you are working with are people who appreciate amicable conversations just as much as you do. Tossing slings and arrows won’t get you far.
A quick word about LAs . . . Thou needs must be nice to the LA, for the LA is The Gatekeeper. The LA makes the appointments, filters the email and the phone calls, and triages the importance of the information coming into your legislator’s office. The LA is also the one who reaches out when the legislator has a question or needs some help on responding to an issue.
Most people have the impression that the only legislators you can work with are the ones from your own district. This is most definitely not the case. When a bill is before a committee, you have access to all the members of that committee. You can provide those members with written testimony at any time the bill is before the committee from the time it is assigned to the committee until the time it leaves the committee for a floor vote or until it is voted down. You can make appointments to meet with a member to discuss the bill, and you can interact with the committee staff and receive meaningful consideration from the member.
During the legislative session, you should consider showing up in business attire. For some of us, that’s pretty much automatic. If your profession is centered around outdoor work, though, it’s worth keeping in mind. Paid lobbyists are required to work in business attire during session, and even though the rules are much less restrictive for citizen lobbying, looking the part certainly doesn’t hurt.
Committee chairs often provide members of the public who come to provide oral testimony with perks that paid lobbyists don’t get. They recognize that this isn’t your normal job, and that you’re before them on your own dime. While you might not have been able to have your name at the top of the list, there are times when a committee chair will move citizen lobbyists to the head of the line in appreciation for taking time out of your business day and traveling all the way to town to speak to the committee. While it doesn’t always happen, it happens often enough to recognize that many legislators are more interested in what you have to say than what they expect to hear from the hired guns.
You need to be able to work with legislators from both parties, particularly when the legislation you want to see enacted was introduced by the minority party. Your key to success here is to be able to identify those provisions in a bill that more or less align with one or more priorities of the legislator you are talking to.
Years ago, a wise legislator told me that I could bring any issue, concern, or problem to her at any time and she would listen and try to do what she could. She said that I would be most effective when I brought my proposed solution in the door at the same time, accompanied by the background information she would need to effectively carry the issue and perhaps introduce legislation if it became appropriate. Part of your solution can include your suggested outline for legislation that will accomplish your goals.
If you think about the things we’re discussing here, you’ll see that all of this helps to develop your legislative participation in a way designed to get you seen as a known quantity and quality who brings good ideas and information to the table for your areas of expertise. One of the goals for working this way is to bring you to the one of the best plums on the tree . . . being asked to help craft and write a bill.
Most of the more substantive pieces of legislation are developed over the course of the year, with most of the work taking place several months prior to the session. These bills are then pre-filed, usually about a month before the gavel drops to open the session. There’s a lot of work involved, and if you are a citizen lobbyist, you won’t be getting paid like the legislative staff do. It’s an honor to be asked to participate in writing a bill, so you can think of it as an investment for your future.
As you move from being someone who probably can’t really influence the legislature to the point where you are asked to help write a bill, you will not only be making a difference, but at the end of the day, you will be one of the few people in the state who are.