A Citizen Lobbyist
How to be an Effective Advocate in the Political Arena
Family North Carolina MagazineMarch/April 2009
by John Rustin and Brittany Farrell
"In all forms of government the people is the true legislator.” ~Edmund Burke
Think of the last time you tried to influence the outcome of a decision or appealed to someone to consider your opinion. It may have been with a colleague at work, with a friend at a recent gathering, or at home with a parent, spouse, or child. A natural part of living and interacting with others is communicating, sharing information and ideas. Along with this, communicating with others involves trying to persuade them to accept your point of view. Although each one of us engages in these activities on a regular basis, we may fail to recognize that we all possess the fundamentals of becoming an effective citizen lobbyist.
Oftentimes in our current culture, the term “lobbyist” carries with it a negative connotation. Many think of “wining and dining” and “pay to play” politics where deals are made in smoky back rooms in Washington D.C. and state capitals across our nation. This was not the way the Founders intended our government to operate. It is an unfortunate consequence of our political system and one that has received much attention in recent years, as the U.S. Congress and state legislatures throughout the country have passed new laws in an effort to rout corruption and graft from the political arena.
The Founders of our country would likely recoil at the events that prompted recent revisions to ethics and lobbying laws on the state and federal levels, but this does not mean that they opposed the concept of “lobbying,” or citizens seeking to influence the decisions made in the arena of public policy. In fact, the form of government they establishedan elected republicrelies heavily upon citizen involvement, including lobbying, for its proper operation.
In a “government of the people, by the people, and for the people,” as Abraham Lincoln described in his 1863 Gettysburg Address, it is imperative for “the people” to be involved in their government. Citizens must take personal responsibility for ensuring that their elected representatives do, in fact, represent them, and this requires much more than just voting on election day. Once elected, representatives cannot be expected to espouse views, opinions, and perspectives on issues that they otherwise would oppose or with which they are unfamiliar or unaware. Policymakers must (1) be educated about the issues, (2) understand the implications of acting or failing to act on a measure before them, and (3) consider the impact of the action on those they represent. A citizen who decides not to engage at this stage of the political process simply cedes his or her influence to someone else who chooses to be involved.
Although many citizens appreciate the privilege and responsibility that comes with living in an elected republic, most greatly underestimate their ability to impact government policy. More and more government actions are having a direct impact on citizens, so that more and more citizens rightly want to know how to make a difference in the formation of public policy that effects them. Citizens can have a tremendous effect on what elected officials do, especially on the state and local levels, but in order to capitalize on this potential, citizens must understand how to engage and influence their government. Effective advocacy starts with the three “P’s” of lobbying: Policy, Process, and People.
“Knowledge will forever govern ignorance; and a people who mean to be their own governors must arm themselves with the power which knowledge gives.” ~James Madison
“Policy” simply refers to the issues, and you first must know something about an issue before you speak to a lawmaker about it. In other words, you must educate yourself. This does not mean that you have to be an expert to be effective, but it is important to have a working knowledge of the issue you want to discuss in order to be able to carry on a conversation and potentially influence the opinion of your legislator.
Research the issue. Refer to educational resources from public policy organizations like the North Carolina Family Policy Council and other groups, and obtain materials from other sources. The Internet offers tremendous access to a wealth of information, but be sure to check your sources for reliability and confirm the data you collect. Any experienced professional lobbyist will tell you the most important asset they have is credibilitymake sure the information you provide is reliable and correct.
After you have a good grasp of the issue, share the information and resources you have gathered with your legislator. Understand that lawmakers deal with thousands of bills each year, and they cannot be an expert on every issue. Once you have developed an expertise in a particular area, offer to be a resource to your legislators, or help them find someone who can provide the information they need. Legislators look for reliable sources of information and are grateful when they find them.
“The government of the Union, then, is emphatically and truly a government of the people. In form and in substance it emanates from them. Its powers are granted by them, and are to be exercised directly on them and for their benefit.” ~John C. Marshall
A staggeringly low percentage of Americans know the names and powers of the three branches of government. This does not bode well for the effective operation of a representative government. After learning the “Policy,” citizens must come to know and understand the “Process,” or the basic functions and workings of their government, if they are going to have a chance of influencing it.
With respect to the North Carolina General Assembly, for example, it is important that citizens understand generally how an idea becomes a law. Most legislation starts when a citizen approaches a legislator about a problem or issue they are facing and the legislator offers to help resolve it. The idea, or how to address it, is formed into a bill that is filed in the State House or Senate or both. Once a bill is introduced, it is referred to one or more legislative committees that may discuss the issuenot every bill that is introduced gets a hearing. Some bills die in committee because they are never brought up for consideration, while other bills receive a great deal of scrutiny. Nonetheless, if the measure makes it through the committee or committees to which it is assigned, it then will be sent to the floor for consideration by the entire body. If the bill passes two votes on the floor, it is then sent to the other chamber for consideration and must go through a similar procedure there. Anywhere in the process after introduction, a bill can be amended, completely changed, defeated or abandoned. The path from idea to law is arduous and fraught with danger, but is one that is designed to provide an opportunity for public input and often results in better legislation in the end. The status of any given bill can be tracked on the North Carolina General Assembly website at www.ncleg.net.
A primary reason for understanding the process is knowing when and where your efforts will be most effectively applied. Typically, you will have the greatest opportunity to influence the state lawmakers who represent you in the General Assembly. Each citizen has one representative in the State House and one in the State Senate. Get to know who these individuals are and keep their contact information handy so you are ready to communicate with them when the time arises. (Complete the cutout on page 19 and put it on your refrigerator or in your phonebook for quick reference.) Next, follow the progress of the bills in which you have an interest through the legislative process, especially when those bills are in committee. The lawmakers who chair committees often determine which bills are considered and which bills are not. They can breathe new life into a bill or stop it dead in its tracks. In addition, the leadership of the House and Senate appointed committees and committee chairs and can exert great influence over committee actions. Once you have contacted your lawmakers about a bill, it is always appropriate to contact the chair of a committee to which the measure is assigned, as well as the Speaker of the House and the President Pro Tempore of the Senate.
Any time is a good time to contact your elected officials about an issue that interests you, and there are many ways to make that contact. Personal visits with your state legislators at home or in their Raleigh offices are typically the most effective. Phone calls, faxes and letters are also very effective. Emails can be effective if your elected officials will read them, but because lawmakers receive hundreds every day, their inboxes can become hard to manage and emails can be overlooked. A simple rule is: the more time and effort it takes you to communicate with your legislator, the more effective that communication will be. Schedule a visit if time permits. If a vote on an issue of interest is imminent, pick up the phone and call your legislator. Expect that those on the opposite side of the issue have or will contact your legislator to advocate for their position, and never assume that someone else will make a contact on your behalf. In actuality, legislators receive very few calls and letters on most issues and none on some issues. Yours may be the only input a legislator gets from a constituent, and this can be enough to change a vote.
“Now more than ever before, the people are responsible for the character of their Congress. If that body be ignorant, reckless and corrupt, it is because the people tolerate ignorance, recklessness and corruption. If it be intelligent, brave and pure, it is because the people demand these high qualities to represent them in the national legislature.” ~James Garfield, 1877
Compared to Policy and Process, a more important and complex aspect of being a citizen lobbyist is learning the “People.” It is important to never lose sight of the fact that legislators and government officials are people just like everyone else. By and large, elected officials seek to serve because they are genuinely interested in helping people, and typically, they are interested in hearing from their constituents. Keep in mind that legislators often make great sacrifices to serve, and that their service requires a significant amount of time and energy. Treat your elected officials with the same etiquette, courtesy and respect that you apply in your business and personal relationships. Recognize that legislators are very busy and that they have personal lives and responsibilities outside of government. Approach disagreements with a balance of patience and persistence.
The best time to develop a relationship with your elected representatives is right now. Make a concerted effort to get to know them. Drop them a note and congratulate them on their recent election. Tell them that you are interested in public policy issues and look forward to working with them and that you appreciate their taking the time to serve in public office. Pray for them regularly and ask how you can help them be successful. You may be surprised at how few people take the time to actually contact their legislators, and you may also be surprised at how receptive your legislators will be. Invite them to lunch when you are in Raleigh or when they are at home. Write them a note of appreciation when they do something you like. Invite them to speak to a civic or church group in which you are involved. Developing a relationship with your lawmakers now will provide the basis from which you will be able to communicate with them more effectively in the future.
The formation of public policy is often a long, complicated, and intense process. Legislators are doing their best to represent the interests of their constituents while upholding their oaths of office and overseeing the operations of a multi-billion dollar entitythe state. They are only human with individual strengths and weaknesses. As a constituent, you possess the potential to influence the decisions of your elected officials. Do not squander the opportunity to have your voice heard and your interests reflected in the government. Each person develops an individual style and approach to communicating with their representatives in government. The key is to start. Take action now!
John L. Rustin is director of government relations for the North Carolina Family Policy Council. Brittany Farrell is a research associate for the North Carolina Family Policy Council.
Copyright © 2009. North Carolina Family Policy Council. All rights reserved.