Don’t bother learning “how a bill moves through the legislature.”
I draw a distinction between what I call the “inside” (professional) lobbyist and the “outside” (volunteer) lobbyist. You need both. The inside lobbyist is your professional legislative representative.
This person knows the ins and outs of the California Senate and Assembly or U.S. Congress. He knows the committee system. He knows the players. He knows the arcane parliamentary rules. He knows the secret handshake and the password to get behind closed doors. He could draw a chart showing how a bill moves through the legislature from memory. It’s vital to have a person like this on your side.
But you, the volunteer advocate, the outside lobbyist, don’t need any of that. Your skills and value lie in your ability to communicate to the person you vote for and relate your personal experience and
your knowledge of how things work regarding your issue and life back in the district at home.
In contrast, professionals provide technical details. They write and edit legislation. They discuss the broad scope and sweep of politics across California and the nation. They use logic, statistics and politics to persuade. They make the case in general. They develop strategy for legislative steps as your issue moves through the process and action to achieve those steps.
Elected officials want to know three things from you: (1) How an issue affects their voters, (2) how much their voters care, and (3) who cares. No matter how worthy your cause, your elected official wants to know how many people care, how much they care and how many live in their district.
This is information that you can provide better and with more credibility than the professional lobbyist. You work and live with the people in the district-the professional lobbyist doesn’t. You have a critical role in communicating your perspective about your issue as an expert who lives and/or works in the district.
This video interview demonstrates the professional lobbyist view of the importance of grass roots advocates… and features a woman’s response to her first visit to the capital to lobby
All professional lobbyists with whom I have talked (hundreds of them) acknowledge this effect. They will tell you that they can be much more powerful if they have a constituent or two with them. Much of their power derives from whatever perception the elected official has of the lobbyist’s constituency.
What to Do and When
Elections and legislative sessions are like tides: the ocean rolls in and out on a predictable schedule and determines where you put your umbrella and cooler on the beach. In the same way, every organization needs to develop strategies for four time frames that fit within predictable election and legislative cycles. At any given moment you are somewhere in this cycle:
- From now until Election Day. What are you going to do in the weeks and months leading up to elections? Depending on your organization’s culture, it may range from nothing to recruiting and running candidates. Just make sure you have considered the election cycle and have a strategy for building relationships and delivering your message to candidates. This could be a period as long as a year.
- From Election Day until the start of the legislative session or Congress. This is when some of your best work can be done. Establish relationships with the newly elected. Strengthen relationships with those reelected. Lay groundwork for your legislative program. Identify key decision makers and legislative gatekeepers. Test your volunteers to see who will perform.
- From start of session to end. What will you do in the district? Will you bring people to the capital? What sort of communications system will you use? What’s your media strategy? What is the role of your volunteer advocates? Do you have key contacts in targeted districts trained and ready to respond to action alerts? Do you have a year-round organization?
- The long haul. It may take years to get what you want, meaning that the immediate success or failure you achieve is not final. You, and all with you, must be prepared to stick with your issues through defeat and after victory. You must demonstrate a commitment strong enough to convince those in power that you are never going away.