What does it take to get legislation passed into law?
For any bill that matters, it takes 60 votes in the U.S. Senate and 218 in the House. 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. So these are the magic numbers you start with.
(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!) In your state legislature, it also takes a magic number. Find out what that number is for your issue and develop your strategy. You can get what you want when you get to that number. For most issues, you can succeed with far fewer, sometimes just one elected official can give you what you want. But if you get the magic numbers, a voting majority of the senate and house, it’s hard to lose.
Here’s how you get them:
The Four Essential Tools Your Organization Needs To Lobby
1. 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 know enough. Professional staff will 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 on the floor and get your bill passed or stopped. The ‘‘outside’’ strategy is how to use money, media, and grassroots advocates in the district to persuade those politicians to vote with you.
2. Money. Anybody who is determined and has something rational to say can get a politician to listen. Just like everyone else, politicians listen best and pay the most attention to people they know and like, who have been supportive. Money demonstrates support. It helps, but you will not be able to buy a vote in most cases and you don’t want to try unless you like looking between cell door bars. Plenty of groups win without money.
3. Media. Newspapers set the political agenda in their circulation area, even in this era of Internet and bloggers. Television rarely does. If a newspaper says an issue is important with coverage and editorials, then politicians (and television) 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. For the time being, I don’t see bloggers and other Internet media impacting politicians about legislation as much as they in campaigns. 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.
4. Key Contacts. (Can be association members, employees, anyone) As a participant in your advocacy organization or association, 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 and persistent manner.
You have enormous power when you tell your personal story, the story of your job, your company 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 in a politician’s district, they care about you. You have information valuable to them even if you don’t vote there.
Again and again politicians tell me they need people like you to help them understand how policy plays out in practice. What is the impact on the street? How are your customers, friends and family affected? You are an expert on this 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. The story of your work, life, family and community.
In your field of work, you know more than the elected officials and have valuable information they want. You probably know more than the professional lobbyist knows. Your elected officials want to benefit from your knowledge and experience. You can also make the story come alive with personal experiences and specific stories that put a face on the issue and make it memorable.
Your ability to win in the legislature or Congress turns more on your ability to make the issue come alive with true stories than any other single factor. Every time I ask a politician to give an example of being influenced, they tell about someone who put a face on the issue with a personal anecdote. Like soap opera fans, they love a good story.