As the Obama Administration muddles through its response to the “plus perfect” storm of crises that have converged, organizations interested in legislative action on key issues can only hang their heads knowing the path forward has gotten more difficult. The lack of legislative action and brinkmanship that defined Washington since the House of Representatives changed hands in January 2011 will only get worse as the divide between the competing priorities of the House and Senate grow. For organizations intent on influencing policy, a new approach is needed.
State-based public affairs is poised to significantly grow in importance in 2014 and should be given greater priority by policy savvy organizations. Here’s why:
Washington isn’t solving issues, only piling them up.
This list of issues Washington wants to address is being pushed aside by issues it needs to address but can’t or won’t. The debate over Syria will push back deliberations over the debt ceiling, which has already pushed immigration reform to next year. Never mind that a budget has not passed, or that the October 1 open enrollment for the states’ health care exchanges, which won’t go smoothly, will consume weeks of flagellation.
In addition, The House, having learned its lesson about casting hard votes last Congress only to see the Senate fail to act is content to let the Senate pass legislation first before forcing members to cast votes that may be used against them in 2014. Therefore, while it waits for the Senate to move, the House will keep itself content with investigations of the IRS, repealing health care reform, and any number of noncritical issues.
Most state legislatures have short sessions that require action and compromise.
With State constitutions requiring balanced budgets and more than 39 states having limited legislative sessions, there is a need to strike deals and achieve results. Similarly, because of the balanced budget criteria debates over tax and spending priorities often change from year to year depending on the financial conditions of the state, elected officials must act. Federal officials have been protected from this in the past because of the lack of a balanced budget amendment (although regular debt ceiling votes are changing this calculus). Finally, unlike Washington, DC, state legislators often know members on both sides of the aisle personally, which contributes to their propensity towards compromise.
Media environments are less saturated.
While interest groups in Washington must compete to be heard among the multitude of similar groups, in most state capitals the field is less crowded. As a result, the media environments are more accepting of original and sponsored research, more likely to cover press events, and eager to seek out new voices. A well timed, coordinated effort to introduce a new dynamic to a policy debate will not only garner press attention, it will force legislators in a much smaller fishbowl to notice.
The scale of grassroots and grasstops efforts is different.
With state legislative districts smaller and the vote tallies needed for election so much smaller, grasstop leaders and grassroots organizers can have disproportionately more influence on local elected officials than federal legislators. Local business, places of worship and organized labor efforts can undertake significantly smaller outreach efforts, but still achieve their goals. When coordinated with a media campaign in a less saturated environment, grassroots campaigns can be wildly successfully. Similarly, fundraisers, policy experts, and long standing politicos with strong relationships to state officials find there are often fewer people with similar qualifications competing for the elected officials’ ear.
Identified as “laboratories of democracy” by former Supreme Court Justice Louis Brandeis nearly 100 years ago, states and state based outreach increasingly hold distinct benefits for organizations seeking to implement large scale policy change. In the absence of action from Washington, organizations seeking to achieve certain policy goals are well advised to look at what can be achieved through state action. The investment is often less and the payoff more immediate.