How to win friends and influence state legislators

The first “funnel” deadline passed at the end of last week, leaving most of the bills introduced in the Iowa legislature dead for this session. Summaries of notable bills that did and did not make it through the funnel can be found here and here.

Bills that have been approved by a full committee remain alive for the 2009 session, and Iowa House and Senate leaders can still introduce new measures. Also, amendments affecting various programs could be attached to appropriations bills that won’t be finalized until next month.

That means advocates should be informed and ready to help persuade legislators in the weeks to come. I’ve posted some ideas on how to accomplish that after the jump, and I’d like to hear your suggestions in the comments.

First of all, you need to know what’s going on before contacting legislators. Don’t call or write your state representative or senator with a vague message about public policy. You need to be specific about supporting or opposing a particular bill. Mention the bill number in the subject line of your e-mail, or near the beginning of your conversation on the phone or in person. You establish credibility as someone who has taken the time to become informed, and you’re not wasting their time with a diatribe about an issue that won’t even be considered this session.

Anyone can go online and read up on pending legislation, but it’s easier to let other people do that work for you.

That’s why I strongly recommend joining advocacy groups that work on issues you care about. Many non-profit organizations send their members regular updates or action alerts about what is happening at the statehouse. Sometimes it doesn’t even cost anything to get on the e-mail list of an advocacy group. Other groups limit such information to paid-up members but charge very modest annual dues.  

Just as elected officials should show concerned citizens common courtesy, you should also be respectful in all communications with state legislators. Try to compliment them in some way (for a vote on a previous bill or for their hard work in general).

The most effective citizen lobbyists are people who live in the districts of the representatives they’re contacting. It never hurts to get to know your representative. Some legislators don’t like getting deluged with e-mails from outside their district and won’t return phone calls from people who live outside their district. However, advocacy groups will often encourage you to contact all members of the relevant committee.

If you’ve received an action alert about a bill, it probably contained “talking points” to use with state legislators. When possible, put these in your own words rather than repeating verbatim a message from somebody else. If you have a personal story relating to the bill, tell it, but be prepared to make a more broad argument about why this bill is (or is not) in the public interest.  

In my opinion, building the cold, hard capitalist case for or against a bill is usually more effective than appealing to some moral or ethical issue. That’s especially true when your opponents are making economic arguments for the other side.

For example, a bill on mental health parity (mandating that private insurance plans cover mental health issues and drug addiction) has been introduced in the Iowa House. According to the Des Moines Register, opponents are making a simple case against it:

“It’s still a very extreme bill,” said insurance lobbyist Paula Dierenfeld, “and would be very costly.”

The Register quotes several supporters of the bill too. Instead of saying it’s unfair for people suffering from mental illness to be denied coverage (which is true in my opinion), they are wisely framing their arguments in monetary terms:

Randolph resident Genette Simmerman said her 13-year-old son has been diagnosed with a behavior disorder and autism, but there’s little mental health coverage for him under her husband’s private insurance policy.

“It covers only $2,000 a year for outpatient services for mental illness, and if you’ve ever had a child in a mental facility, you know that’s about one day,” said Simmerman.


County employers generally reject cost increases, but county officials believe it’s better for people to get services sooner, said Linda Hinton, a lobbyist for the Iowa State Association of Counties. Counties expect a “small increase” in mental health service expenses, she said.

One former opponent of the bill, the Iowa Hospital Association, now favors it because its members think the mandate would offset absenteeism and lost productivity, lobbyist Shannon Strickler said.

Dr. Douglas Steenblock, a staff psychiatrist at the Iowa Veterans Home and president-elect of the Iowa Psychiatric Society, agreed that the bill would improve workplace productivity.

He said the annual cost of mental disorders to the U.S. economy is about $204 billion, according to a 1999 study published in Economics of Neuroscience.

Speaking of money, it doesn’t hurt to have given some money to the legislator you’re lobbying, but there are other ways to make an impression even if you can’t afford to make political contributions. Republican State Representative Linda Upmeyer used to lobby on behalf of the Iowa Nurses Association before she was elected to the legislature in 2002. She wrote up these helpful hints for nurse practitioners, but her advice doesn’t just apply to nurses:

As the former chairwoman of the Iowa Nurses Association’s political action committee, I once thought getting the attention of legislators was best done with a check – good contributions from citizens and associations. As legislator, I learned that is partly true, but only partly.

Campaigns are expensive, and legislators appreciate financial support. Associations may give donations based on a legislator’s ability to be helpful by serving on certain committees or acting in leadership roles. Lawmakers also appreciate personal checks because, in most cases, personal contributions convey personal support (i.e. votes). Yet, when I think of the people who influenced me most during the past legislative session, it wasn’t based on contributions; it was based on the people and the stories they told me.

Get to Know Your Legislators

The most effective way to influence policy is to meet with your legislators before the session begins. Tell them who you are – both personally and professionally. If I speak with someone face to face, I am more likely to understand an issue, ask questions and discuss the best course of action to take. You have an advantage over professional lobbyists: You can personalize issues. If a legislator knows that a constituent is a mother, part-time NP student and nurse, she can better understand the ramifications of mandatory overtime. Even if your legislative agenda has yet to be set, take the opportunity to get to know your legislators. Then, when you do need to discuss a bill, your legislators have a frame of reference for who you are and what you care about. Remember: All politics is local. Get to know your representatives.

Share Stories and Solutions

Legislators may respond to your message in a variety of ways. They may disagree and, at times, even act hostile. They may seem indifferent. Or, they may strongly agree and become your advocate. I worked very hard on several pieces of health care legislation last year. Often, I got involved because someone took the time to approach me with a problem and offered an idea about how to improve the situation. This tactic induced my passion. When constituents convinced me, I poured my heart into advocating change to my colleagues.


Speak Clearly and Completely

When discussing an issue, use terms legislators understand. Cut to the chase by offering the clearest, simplest explanation possible. Many issues compete for legislators’ attention, and their eyes may glaze over if a topic becomes too laborious. While many legislators are good talkers, not all are good listeners. Be sensitive to their attention span. If you sense it is not a good time to receive their full attention, reschedule the appointment.

Never lie or mislead, and always provide sound information. Present both sides of an issue. If you present only the positive aspects of your cause, your opposition will be free to fill in the holes with all kinds of gloom-and-doom details. Instead, diffuse the negatives yourself. Let legislators know who might oppose the issue and why. If you build a relationship based on trust, you will be heard. If legislators don’t consider you trustworthy, they will avoid you like the plague.

I would emphasize one other point related to the trust-building Upmeyer is talking about. When you talk to legislators, listen very carefully to what they tell you. Typically they will want to leave you with the impression that they value your input and respect your position. They may even seem to be expressing support for your viewpoint, but don’t assume they are with you on a particular bill unless they tell you that explicitly.

Republican State Representative Kevin Koester told this story in his column for the Ankeny section of this week’s Des Moines Register:

I met “Jenny” of Ankeny by e-mail last month, then in-person last week during her Capitol visit. In my sincere effort to be a leader who listens, I indicated my concern and support for her good cause. […]

The pickle last week, that taught me a helpful lesson, is a result of my failure to communicate clearly with Jenny. I expressed my commitment last Wednesday afternoon to study the problem, the bill, and to also offer help. She left our discussion counting on my yes vote.

I did not intend to convey to her that I would fully support the bill as written. Actually I was still undecided at that point.

After 9 p.m. last Wednesday I returned two separate calls from anxious persons anticipating a very close vote tally on HSB 229. I was ready and decisive on the bill because it was now scheduled for the State Government Committee vote at 4 p.m. Thursday. When asked, I replied that I oppose the current bill and gave several reasons.

News of my evening phone conversations somehow resulted by noon the next day in three people implying that I had “flipped” my vote decision. Clearly there was a misunderstanding with these good folks who perceived me to favor the bill. The story ends well, but not until after Jenny and I had a tough, frank discussion.

If you’ve ever worked at the statehouse or lobbied on an issue, please share your own tips for communicating with elected officials in this thread.

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