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Harrisburg PA Lobbyist

EFFECTIVE COMMUNICATION WITH LEGISLATORS AND STAFF
 

The Basics

If you are confused about the legislative process, you are not alone.  Unless you work with it all the time, it is a system that appears Byzantine with its complexity and uncertain as to its outcome.  Media is not always a help since it reports the high points (maybe the low points) on big issues but there is not usually a lot of depth.  So, maybe you hear about the outcome but not about how things happen.

 

This feeds the myth that lobbying is only an Insider’s Game where a few make things happen and the rest of us are always on the outside looking in (assuming that you can see anything or know what you are looking at).  In reality, America is one of the most open societies in the world where average citizens make a real difference without giving up their day jobs.

 

Success is a matter of conviction plus knowledge of the issue plus patience/persistence.

 

Still, a person needs tools to start with. That is why this Web site was established…to walk a person through the how-tos of making a personal and professional difference in the legislative arena.  A basic understanding of the process is important too. Having an idea as to how the system works gives the Citizen Lobbyist (You!) the advantage of knowing when to exert effort to best advantage.

 

The Idea

All legislation starts with an idea. This idea, if felt by enough people or advocated by a few people who are persistent, becomes a bill.  A bill is a written document that changes an existing law or makes new law.  Sometimes, ideas can be a powerful visionary force for a noble goal such as insuring everybody or creating an economic climate that attracts business.  Usually however, these ideas are reactions to something going on that a person, business, or industry doesn’t like. 

Examples might be:  

  • the way property tax is calculated (tax law)

  • a legal situation (tort reform)

  • sprawl/farmland preservation (zoning)

  • social needs (Medicaid, mental health)

  • defining a profession (occupational licensing/oversight)

 

Assuming a legislator has interest, a bill may be introduced.  Another type of legislation is a Resolution.  If enacted either by one chamber or both, it expresses an opinion (Urging the U.S. Congress to do something) or is commemorative (recognizing a high school team on the state championship).

 

 

The Bill

Legislators introduce bills because of their own experience or personal vision or (more likely) they react to something that someone suggested to them. That someone could be another legislator, their political leadership, a professional lobbyist or someone at home.  The someone at home could be someone at the grocery store, someone whose kid is in the swimming or soccer team, someone at church or professional club like Rotary or Lions.  Or, it could be someone like you who has a special interest.  When you come right down to it, everyone is a special interest.  Most folks have several special interests and could represent the views of those special interests because they believe in them.  A person might be a:

 

Special Interest Issues
Parent Child safety, schools, health issues
Churchgoer Abortion, values, helping others
Land user Land use, the environment, hunting
Small Businessperson  Tax policy, employment rules
Employee Labor Unions, work rules, benefits
Retiree Social benefits, taxes, pensions
Taxpayer “Good Gov’t Issues”, property taxes
Farmer Agriculture, zoning, marketing rules
Landscape Designer Fill in the Blank                                     

…and lots of other things besides

 

The legislator will listen to you because you are local and besides, you get to vote. Knowing the legislator ahead of time is not a prerequisite to getting a bill introduced.  Courage to ask is a prerequisite to success in the political and legislative world.

 

Suppose a legislator wants to propose a bill, what then?

 

He goes to a specialized office that drafts legislation usually called Legislative Reference Bureau or something similar.  It produces a draft (‘blue line’) which is then reviewed and put in formal language.  A bill must reference the section of the Code that it wants to amend or it could be a free-standing measure.  A legislator usually sends around a memo asking other legislators to sign on (only from the chamber he or she is from, a Senator does not sponsor a House bill and conversely). 

 

When the bill is formally introduced, it is given a number and a printer’s number. The printer’s number is as important as the bill number because it keeps track of the bill.  Every time the bill is amended, it gets a new printer’s number.  The legislator who puts the bill in is called the prime sponsor.

 

The Process

The bill is referred to a committee.  This decision is made by the leadership of the House or Senate with input from the prime sponsor, committee chairmen or others.  There may be lobbying as legislators and lobbyists will want to get the bill in to a committee where the members know something about the issue, where there is formal jurisdiction, or simply because the chairman or members of the committee might be more receptive to the bill than another committee.

 

Sometimes bills don’t go where you think.  For example, a bill dealing with insurance could go lots of places depending on what type of insurance it is.  It could go to Insurance (or Banking & Insurance/Financial Services), Health, Aging, Environmental (environmental liability), Labor Relations/Commerce (workers’ compensation) etc.

 

Usually there is a committee that has formal jurisdiction over professional licensure.

 

From there, lots of things can happen:

 

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Nothing:  Lots of bills get introduced. Few will pass and maybe that’s not a bad thing.  A committee chairman can bottle up a bill or let it out to see the light of day.  Lobbying tries to convince the chairman or get leadership to convince the chairman or other committee members to convince the chairman to move the bill.

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A hearing:  Often, a bill may see a hearing if there is interest expressed from special interests, the public or other legislators. It gives everyone a chance to go on record in expressing their views and provides a forum where legislators may ask questions.  There is usually written testimony and speakers need a reservation.  Sometimes a committee will have an informational session which is kind of like a hearing and sometimes a committee will hold a meeting with stakeholders instead of a formal hearing where everything is on the record.

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Amending the bill can take place in committee or on the floor.  Any legislator may introduce an amendment providing that there is advance public notice.  Sometimes, amending a bill is called marking it up.

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Movement through the committee is a vote by members.  A meeting such as this usually requires advance notice unless the meeting is called ‘off the floor’ (during a short recess)

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Re-referral to another committee (after it goes to the House or Senate for a ‘reading’, a technical requirement necessary to refer a bill again).  If there is a budgetary impact, the bill is almost always referred to the Appropriations Committee (sometimes called Ways and Means in some states).  Once re-referred, lots of things can happen to it (see above list).

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A vote.  Votes are based on what’s on the calendar, something decided in advance by the leadership. Usually, votes are taken after consultation with the minority party but not always where it would be a party line vote where majority rules.  Usually, there is a lot of lobbying as to which bills get on the calendar.

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Keep in mind that the bill can be amended and if the legislature is at a deadline such as end of session where they have to pass a particular law, the bill might be stripped clean of what was originally in there and amended to have new language.

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Assuming that there is a vote, the bill goes over to the other chamber where the process starts again with committee referrals and so forth.

 

Does this seem complex to you?  It should because that’s the beauty of our system. It gives special interests (don’t forget, that’s you) tremendous opportunity to provide input every step of the way.  It does slow down the process, no doubt, but that’s a better system than one which allows passage of legislation without transparency or public input.

 

In a typical session of a legislature depending on the length of session, 50 to 100 or more bills may be introduced for every one that actually passes the legislature.

 

Once passed, the Governor may sign it or veto it.

 

If signed into law, the regulators take over so as to implement the new law.  Influencing the regulatory process is another story and one that’s kind of fun but for now, stick to the basics of the legislative process since the regulatory process may differ significantly from state to state.  Lobbying works there too but the rules are a little different.

 

The Bottom Line

Of course you can’t be expected to give up your day job to follow this stuff because there is so much of it.  Still, from time to time, you need to check on things.  Two short cuts:  First, go to the Internet and type in “(name of state) state legislature”.  What you should see is a list that starts with the official site of the legislature where you can check the status of  a particular bill if you know the number. There should also be an index feature that allows you to search by topic ‘landscape architecture, landscape designer’ etc.

 

The second short cut is to introduce yourself to a lawmaker and/or staff to let them know about who you are and what your profession stands for.  Put yourself on their radar screen and ask them to keep you posted on anything affecting your profession.  Bug them or they will forget that they promised to update you.

 

HOW TO WRITE A LETTER


 

Letter-writing is in danger of becoming a lost art.  President Bush 1 did it. President Reagan wrote thousands of letters during his tenure as President.  Most of us, however, don’t take the time to write a letter. We do e-mails or phone calls.  There is nothing wrong with communicating with legislators that way too but there are limitations. E-mails should be short and get to the point versus a careful explanation as to why a position is taken. A phone call is great assuming that you can get to speak with someone.  When you do, will there be time enough to communicate your message?

 

Another problem with e-mails, phone calls, and mass-generated form letters is that they are more valuable if there are numbers.  Most legislators will respect a thoughtful letter as being more genuine and less orchestrated than a mass media approach.

 

Following are pointers re letters:

 

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Manner of address

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What to say in the first paragraph

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The body of the letter

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The conclusion

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The post script

 

Manner of Address

 

In the heading always refer to them as Honorable (name).  When you address them, use “Dear Representative or Dear Senator”.

 

The First Paragraph

 

The first paragraph sets the stage. It gives the legislator a reason to read the letter. Make sure you identify yourself as a constituent if that is the case or that you have clients in the district to give you some credibility.  Contained within the letter should be information as to who you are and what your cause is. An example might be: “ I am a landscape designer who has served (number) of homeowners and businesses in (county) for (number of years). My specialty is XX. I am writing to ask that you (specific action sought).”

 

The Body

 

Why do you feel the way you do?  This is where you summarize the issues.  In addition, you need to illustrate the effect of existing law that you want changes…”This affects people like a recent customer from (location) who asked me to (service). Because of (obstacle) I was not even able to give advice despite my years in the business.” Keep it down to two paragraphs.

 

The Conclusion

 

What did you say?  The conclusion is designed to bring together the body into the letter and give the legislator the bottom line.  What do you want?  Always thank the person for being interested in your view and then give it to them.  “I appreciate your interest in my view and hope that you will recognize that the issue is about restraint of trade and preventing consumers from having a real choice between professionals. I ask that you (vote for, oppose, sponsor, support an amendment to…etc.).

 

The Post Script

 

Having a P.S. is a good way to end the letter. It will be read! What is the bottom line?  Is there something that is most important?  It could be a follow up (“Thanks for agreeing to …”) or a reminder that you will visit him/her at home etc.

 

PERSONAL VISITS


 

Personal visits are best because it is a primary form of communication.  A legislator appreciates the time you take from your job to visit him/her just as you appreciate his/her time.

 

Most visits will only mean 15 minutes of quality time or less so it is important that you think things through ahead of time.  Don’t be offended if you end up meeting with a staff person or the legislator just pokes his/her head in the room to say hi to a constituent. Meeting with staff usually means that you get more quality time unless they are clearly there just to meet and greet and not to talk shop.

 

Ask yourself:

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Why are we meeting?

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What is the point?  What do you want the legislator to do?  If there is not an action item and you are just familiarizing him/her with the profession, this may not be as important.  Just think about what the legislator is wondering: ‘Why am I meeting with this person?’

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Are there examples that support your position? Telling an anecdote gets the point through much more effectively because people think in terms of case studies or actual situations.

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What follow up do you want?  Understand that this whole business of Citizen Lobbyists is about building a relationship. It’s not just a one-time thing. Follow up makes sure that you continue to have a dialogue and, as such, a relationship. One follow up could be asking the legislator to come visit you in your work setting so that they can see first-hand what the profession is all about.  Another follow up could be to ask for a report or a copy of a bill etc.

 

The meeting has several stages. First, the settling in occurs where the legislator puts you in context.  There may be busy talk about people you both know.  Once the setting is set, the advocacy can begin.  At the end of the conversation (don’t overstay your welcome as the legislator’s attention begins to wander), summarize.

Don’t forget to thank him/her both at the start of the meeting and at its’ end.  Make sure that business cards are exchanged.

 



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