Whether you work for a company, an association or a nonprofit, the reality is the same in most government affairs shops: there are more bills on hold than there are in play. The question is what to do about it.
When a bill is in motion, the needs are often straightforward. You are counting votes, lending support, applying pressure, answering questions—doing everything you can to solidify your provisions, maintain momentum and unstick the stuck.
When a bill is stalled, however, the plan is not always so obvious. Supporting legislation that is not moving can be difficult and awkward. Lawmakers and staff want to devote their energy to issues in motion, and many are quick to dodge discussion on anything not headed to the floor.
Yet if a bill is genuinely important to your organization and part of your legislative agenda, it requires your attention, whether it is moving or not. Those stuck in the process often require more energy and creativity than those on the fastrack. The positive news is that there is much you can do to build momentum—and now is a great time to start.
Summer break is a good time to build a case for your legislation. In Washington, the window for debate on important bills is expected to close at the end of the year. Next year, the election will very likely cool prospects for major legislation because neither party wants to subject incumbents to difficult votes. In the states, many legislatures have wrapped up their work this year, but many will be back at it again come January. That means summer is a good time to schedule meetings, present new information and get your bill on track for consideration later this year or early next.
The goal is to build momentum, and it’s not always easy. When bills move quickly, they are often propelled by news events as lawmakers react to needs. For example, the arrival of coronavirus on U.S. soil triggered federal relief bills containing trillions of dollars in assistance. The murder of George Floyd prompted dozens of police reform bills in Congress and the states. Big events are not a guarantee that bills will pass, but they can provide momentum. If there is no news event, government affairs shops must work hard to both create a compelling argument and a sense of urgency.
The key is to build a story showing your legislation has all the components lawmakers need to support a bill, including elements like a solid policy argument, demonstrable constituent need, public support, major cosponsorship and backing from leadership. Your plan will be different for every bill, based on the issue and its legislative history. Yet there are some well-proven tactics that can fit into almost every playbook.
Use a Petition to Build Support
It is easy to discount petitions as a dated tactic, or one too easily gamed at a time when organizations can easily reach thousands of people. But don’t be too quick to dismiss it. Petitions fill several valuable roles. For starters, a petition in a lawmaker’s district can still prompt action. Recall that just a few years ago, a petition with 25,000 signatures prompted the White House to explain why the administration would not build a Death Star.
But petitions have an even bigger benefit: they can help build your list in places where you want supporters. Phone2Action’s 2020 State of Advocacy Report showed that campaigns asking people to sign a petition are far more efficient at attracting new advocates than other types of campaigns. For example, petition campaigns on average drew 182 percent more new advocates than “contact your lawmaker” campaigns in the first half of 2020. In total, organizations gained almost 600,000 new advocates using petition campaigns from January to June of last year.
A petition launched in a lawmaker’s district gives you an asset to show, and it identifies supporters you can draw upon later. That’s powerful.
Commission a Poll to Show Public Sentiment
Few things are more powerful than polling, and the more specific the better. A poll showing public support for your bill, your position or your issue within a lawmaker’s district is not likely to be ignored. Of course, public support is no guarantee of legislative action. Polling by Gallup and Quinnipiac University going back to 2016 show that a majority of voters favor stricter gun laws, yet Congress has yet to pass a comprehensive bill. But lawmakers serve at the pleasure of their constituents and polling that clearly shows their feelings on an issue will almost certainly draw their attention. It can draw the attention of local media, too.
Use Grassroots Pressure to Generate Urgency
State and federal lawmakers are used to getting large numbers of communiques—and that’s why it’s important to represent. Legislative staff use constituent feedback to gage many things, from sentiment in the district to the level of urgency. Often, they literally count correspondence on an issue. Encouraging your supporters to contact their lawmakers via email and social media with personal messages is an important tactic when it comes to swaying hearts and minds. Also, don’t forget phone calls. The phone has an advantage: calls cannot be ignored. In a campaign last year, the California Charter Schools Association got almost 3,800 supporters to call state lawmakers, resulting in about 100 hours of talk time. It was very, very effective.
Of course, it is always important to calibrate the pressure you apply on your issue, weighing the efficacy of high-pressure tactics against the need to maintain relationships. But constituent outreach is a vital part of almost every legislative campaign.
Collect Stories to Humanize Policy
Grassroots communications that contain real constituent stories are far more powerful than a bunch of form letters. Personal stories humanize any issue. They make the connection between policy and people. More important, lawmakers need constituent stories to defend their positions. They need to be able to point to real people when they explain how they are voting. If you want to see how this works in action, watch this video of Senator Richard Durbin as he reads a constituent’s personal story on the Senate floor, arguing for an insurance bill.
You can and should traffic in these stories. You can collect stories from advocates who support your positions. Tools like Phone2Action’s Convo template make this easy. You can then use these stories when they are needed. Often, that will be in a campaign to persuade lawmakers to vote with you. But there are many other uses, from social posts to press conferences. However you use them, personal stories are a key ingredient in almost every winning legislative campaign.
Generate Studies to Provide Data
Every lawmaker who supports a bill needs the intellectual armament to do so. Often, they are asked to defend their position, and you can help them by feeding them relevant arguments and the data to back those arguments up. One great way to do this is by creating studies and reports that generate fresh information. While this is a common tactic, the effect can be powerful. The data that you generate can support your primary arguments, counter your opposition and cut off the misinformation that so often infects policy debate.
Equally important, your data can be used in many ways. It can bolster the talking points that you deliver to lawmakers, fuel content on your website and social media channels and—if it is both new and solid—generate media stories. You have to have the resources to generate original research. But the impact can be mighty.
Book Personal Meetings to Make the Case
This is something everybody knows, but it is worth repeating in the context of the summer doldrums. Obviously, meeting with lawmakers to gain support for your bill are important. The meetings that go the farthest are those that are conducted to foster genuine relationships, and those often take place outside the heat of a legislative session. Teams that use the summer to meet with lawmakers when they are not facing multiple votes and caucus meetings will develop the type of relationships that translate into legislative support. Those that wait until the action has started and bills are moving may have a tougher time.
Target Districts to Bring Your Message Home
When you need to get a lawmaker’s attention, taking action in the district can often do the trick. Just make sure you understand the implications; messaging back home can be interpreted as aggressive. Still, many organizations use advertising, earned media, grassroots advocacy, community events and other tools to speak to federal and state lawmakers in their districts. In fact, it does not always need to be targeted to be effective. Sometimes, just getting local is enough.
For example, Expedia Group, which operates short-term rentals such as VRBO and HomeAway, used this tactic to shape legislation to regulate the rental business in Arizona. After running successful grassroots email campaigns, some with conversion rates north of 30 percent, the company asked advocates to attend a rally at the state capitol. More than 100 people showed up and Expedia ultimately got the amendments it was advocating.
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