Is your organization prepared to approach a “change” Congress in 2019?

Is your organization prepared to approach a “change” Congress in 2019?

By David Lusk

It’s uncertain if 2018 will be a “wave” election (a change in party control within the legislative branch), but we know it will be a “change” election. With less than three months before a new Congress takes over, your organization has likely finalized, or nearly finalized, your 2019 policy and advocacy strategy. Since there’s some uncertainty about party control in either chamber of Congress next year, your “strategery” likely accounts for both a Democratic and Republican majority in each. How well will your strategy address lawmakers unfamiliar with the processes and players on Capitol Hill? Will those numbers really be significant? Let’s take a closer look.

As the 115th Congress winds down, 80 members – from the House and Senate combined – have already departed Capitol Hill or will retire at the end of 2018 (according to the US House Press Gallery’s “Casualty List”). Among the record-setting number of retirements announced by House Republicans (48) was that of Speaker Paul Ryan (R-WI). While some of these departing lawmakers may return to the Hill as their state’s new Senator, Ryan’s retirement means a new Speaker, majority leadership and some committee chairs for the House, even if the Republicans retain control. We still have November’s midterms just ahead, when these open seat races elect new members alongside challengers that toppled incumbents.

While polling’s accuracy has been suspect lately, the party in control of the White House typically loses seats in midterm elections. Forecasts by FiveThirtyEight predict Democrats could gain from 19 to 62 seats in the House. A few Senate incumbents are at risk in their re-election bids as well. FiveThirtyEight’s Senate modeling ranges from a +2 for the Democrats to countering this possible House “blue wave” with a +4 for the Republicans. These gains by either party could be coupled with members who “hold their seat” by winning re-election in November and step down by mid-2019, enabling a governor of the same party to appoint a successor. All of these scenarios combined mean we could see 100 to 125 members of the 116th Congress (or more) sworn in as freshmen or lawmakers that have served less than two years. That’s 25% of Congress that could have a significant experience and knowledge gap, or more.

How significant are these numbers? 1994’s Republican Revolution brought 97 freshmen to the 104th Congress (18%), and the 2010 midterms elected 107 freshmen (20% of Congress). How will your lobbying staff build effective relationships with so many inexperienced lawmakers in the first half of 2019, especially when these new members will see a crush of interest groups requesting meetings? Organizations will have to focus their efforts on issue education, not issue advocacy. Incidentally, this will be during the time when most will host their Capitol Hill advocacy day. How do associations, nonprofits, and other enterprises successfully achieve their policy goals in such an environment?

Many will enter this environment more confidently than most. These associations and nonprofits have spent years transforming their network of supporters into key contact and issue ambassador programs. They help extend an organization’s reach by taking on policy responsibilities once reserved for staff, working with congressional offices throughout the year both in DC and back home in the district. Key contact networks lead to an “evergreen” advocacy effort, leveraging existing advocate-lawmaker relationships to shape policy regardless of which member, chamber or party is taking the lead on an issue. Think of the influence your enterprise could have wielded had this been done back in 2005 with Illinois’ junior Senator. In less than three years, you could have cultivated an advocate on behalf of your issues in the White House. Could that have changed the results of your legislative efforts during President Obama’s Administration? Quite possibly. If you haven’t been doing this, all is not lost. As that Chinese proverb goes: “The best time to plant a tree was 20 years ago; the second best time is now.” Start identifying the best messengers and messages from among those in your grassroots network today!

Key contacts can engage incoming legislators just after the elections, helping them understand the implications of federal policy on the communities they will soon represent. Some issue ambassador programs don’t wait until the elections. Their volunteers engage all announced candidate seeking to make their concerns a local litmus test for voters.

Don’t expect every member of your grassroots network to be a fit for such an effort. These aren’t just “point and click” activists. Interest groups make investments to identify the right messenger, often per issue or tactic, and follow that up with extensive training. These higher-level activists are taught a variety of tactics, including advanced advocacy training on the art of key interest-based engagement, relationship building, and how to be an asset to their assigned legislator. It takes time for these volunteers to nurture relationships with representatives, so this isn’t a short-term or one time commitment by the enterprise. These programs even help an organization can avoid advocate fatigue by measuring the short-term successes of each advocate with performance-based metrics, demonstrating how the group as a whole is making progress while awaiting passage of a bill or for final regulations to be written.

The effectiveness of this relationship-based approach to policy advocacy has been demonstrated time and time again by recent research and results, including by my prior employers and current clients. With a legislature of so many members lacking even a basic understanding of most organizations’ issues on the horizon, having such supporters at the ready to boost your lobbying efforts should prove most helpful. With more and more issue groups launching such programs and even creating new “grasstops director” positions separate from the grassroots staff, it may be a necessity in an ever-more competitive advocacy environment. Has your organization accounted for this looming congressional experience and knowledge gap? Extending the reach of your enterprise via a key contact program may be one of the most effective investments to make. The question is, will you begin that process now or wait until your organization falls further behind those groups that have?

David Lusk, the Founder of Key Advocacy, is a member of the ASAE Government Relations Section Council, serving as a co-chair of the GRSC Content Subcommittee

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