The essential tools you need to influence the legislature
Start with the magic numbers. In Congress, for any bill that matters, it takes 60 votes in the U.S. Senate and 218 in the House to pass. After that, you need the support of the President and then you have to work with the bureaucrats or regulators who write the rules. Those people can give you what you want. It’s sort of like being in school. You can get 90s and A’s or you can get 70s and C’s, but you still pass and graduate. Anything less than 70 and you fail. When you add 218 in the House and 60 in the Senate, you pass. You win. Anything else is gravy. (If you face a presidential veto, to override it will take a two-thirds vote in both houses: 67 in the senate and 290 in the house. Good luck!) Those are the magic numbers at the federal level.
In the California legislature, it usually takes 41 of 80 assembly members and 21 of 40 senators to create the magic number. For most issues, you can succeed with far fewer, but with those numbers, and the governor on your side, it’s hard to lose. So, how do you get to the magic numbers?
Here Are the Four Essential Tools You Need For Grass Roots Lobbying
- Professional lobbying staff. You need someone on the inside who understands the system and who will focus on your issues 24/7/365. A volunteer cannot devote the necessary time and can’t possibly know enough. Professional staff should help you develop a list of target politicians (who can give you what you want), develop an inside strategy, and tell you what to do and when to do it. The “inside” strategy is the plan to get votes in committee and onto the floor, and to get a bill passed or stopped. The “outside” strategy includes how to use money, media and grassroots advocates in the district to persuade those politicians to vote with you.
- Money. Anybody who is determined and has something rational to say can get a politician to listen. But, just like everyone else, politicians listen best and pay the most attention to people they know and like, and who have been supportive. Money demonstrates support. Money is an important tool, but don’t make the mistake of thinking you get a vote for giving legal money. Plenty of groups win without money. A core idea in this book is that good grass roots organizing can overcome a lack of money and combat those who have money.
- Media. Newspapers set the political agenda in their circulation area, even in this era of Facebook, Twitter and bloggers. Television doesn’t. The Internet doesn’t. If a newspaper says an issue is important with coverage and editorials, then politicians (and television and the Internet) will pay attention. Using media to amplify and deliver your message can be a powerful tool. Getting coverage on the editorial pages and in the news pages and on TV can get the attention of politicians whose help you need. Despite the hue and cry, I don’t see bloggers and other Internet media impacting politicians to vote one way or another on legislation. But the impact of the Internet is growing and it might be that individual politicians come under much greater scrutiny on a day-to-day basis through the ‘net.
- Members. As a participant in your advocacy organization, your job is to communicate a specific message to the politician in whose district you work or vote. You must convince them that (1) a lot of people (2) in the district (3) whom the politician needs (4) care about the issue and (5) care a lot. You accomplish this by describing how the issue affects your life, your work and you, and by getting others to do the same in a thoughtful, personal manner.
You have enormous power when you tell your personal story, the story of your job, your life and the other people who can vote for the person you are talking to. It’s almost as strong even if you don’t physically live in the district, but work in the district. (“District” refers to the area represented by U.S. House members, and members of state legislatures. The “district” for U.S. Senators is their state.)
If you work, live or vote in a politician’s district, they care about you. You have valuable information. I have talked with hundreds of elected officials from the U.S. Senate down to mayors and city council members. Again and again they say that they need people like you to help them understand how policy plays out in practice. What is the impact on the street? On your family, employer, friends and neighbors? For your issue, you are an expert because you live and breathe it every day.
When you realize you only have to talk about the subjects you already know, it makes your job easier. You don’t have to be an expert on parliamentary procedure, the committee system, or anything else. You do not need to know how a bill moves through the legislature, although that is useful. Just tell your story about your issue.