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Advocacy Tools That Influence Congressional Decision-making

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What is more effective, what is less effective in influencing Capitol Hill?

The complexity of influencing or affecting public policy in Washington, DC has never been greater. According to Lobbyist.info, over $8.1 billion dollars was spent in the last two years by the lobbying community trying to affect the outcome of laws and regulations in the U.S. Congress.

Now, for many, "lobbying" is a bad word. It connotes individuals using inside information, their personal connections, or other tools to impact the minds of 100 U.S. Senators, 435 members of the U.S. House of Representatives, and the over 12,000 congressional staffers that work in the legislative branch.

But lobbying is not a bad word. In fact it is vital for a dynamic democracy to have citizen involvement and input beyond their change to vote on Election Day. It is embedded in the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution: "Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of Religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or the press, or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for the redress of grievances."

We often think of lobbyists as those who represent "Big Business" or "Big Labor" or "Corporate America," but most lobbyists work for other enterprises and organizations. They include: small businesses, nurses, teachers, community banks, religious institutions, colleges and universities, and great causes -- ending breast cancer, ending juvenile diabetes, or preventing AIDS.

But I am not writing today to defend lobbying. That will be later. I just want to be sure that my readers don't have a knee-jerk reaction to the lobbying business.

The focus of today is to help clarify which advocacy tools work and which do not work when an individual or organization wants to passionately impact the legislative process in Washington.

Newly released research from the Graduate School of Political Management at George Washington University provides clues never before unearthed.

The Congressional Communications Report provides a monumental look at how America communicates with the Congress. The nearly 3,000 congressional staff and lobbyists who participated in this study provided incredible insights and valuable outcomes measurement.

One question asked was designed to find out from congressional staff what lobbying tools influence Members of Congress decision-making (just some of the 16 advocacy tools are listed below).

"In your opinion, how effective are each of the following lobbying activities in influencing or shaping members of congress' decision-making on legislative issues?"


Lobbying Activities

  • Providing consistently reliable information: 87.0 percent [Very Effective (4 & 5)]; 2.3 percent [Not at all effective (1 & 2)]
  • Presenting a concise argument: 85.2 percent [Very Effective (4 & 5)]; 3.9 percent [Not at all effective (1 & 2)]
  • Holding face-to-face meetings: 58.4 percent [Very Effective (4 & 5); 10.9 percent [Not at all effective (1 & 2)]
  • Making a pending vote an organizational "KEY VOTE" with results to be communicated to organization's membership: 29.2 percent [Very Effective (4 & 5); 36.4 percent [Not at all effective (1 & 2)]
  • Conducting opinion surveys, Polls: 17.7 percent [Very Effective (4 & 5)]; 43.1 percent
  • Bringing in former members of Congress: 25 percent [Very Effective (4 & 5); 38.1 percent
  • Organizing email/postcard/call campaigns: 13.1 percent [Very Effective (4 & 5); 57.7 percent

The tools are pretty straight forward. Most interesting is that congressional staff ranked "providing consistently reliable information" and "presenting a concise argument" as their top choices. This means that every American can influence the process provided they are able to meet these expectations.

Another "takeaway" is that these tools need to be "laddered" in their use and by the resources available by the advocacy organization. Less effective advocacy tools include making a vote a "KEY VOTE," using surveys or polls to affect outcomes, or leveraging former members to affect their former colleagues or staff.

Another question asked how congressional staff learns about policy issues. This reveals to citizen advocates and professional lobbyists where they need to go to 'shape' the conversation (just a few of the 19 areas asked about are below).

"How valuable are each of the following as ways for you to learn about policy issues?"

Ways to learn

  • Congressional Research Service (CRS): 85.8 percent (Valuable/Very Valuable); 3.3 percent (Slightly Valuable/Not at all Valuable)
  • Academic or issue experts: 81.5 percent (Valuable/Very Valuable); 4.3 percent (Slightly Valuable/Not at all Valuable)
  • Blogs: 51.3 percent (Valuable/Very Valuable); 16.7 percent (Slightly Valuable/Not at all Valuable)
  • Constituents: 50.3 percent (Valuable/Very Valuable); 19.6 percent (Slightly Valuable/Not at all Valuable)
  • Internet Searches: 50.3 percent (Valuable/Very Valuable); 15.7 percent (Slightly Valuable/Not at all Valuable)
  • Survey and poll results: 26.0 percent (Valuable/Very Valuable); 37.8 percent (Slightly Valuable/Not at all Valuable)
  • Interest Group websites: 22.9 percent (Valuable/Very Valuable); 27.5 percent (Slightly Valuable/Not at all Valuable)
  • Social media: 12.2 percent (Valuable/Very Valuable); 61.1 percent

The Congressional Research Service (CRS) and academic and issue experts were selected as two of the most valuable tools. Blogs, onstituents and Internet searches fall into a second tier; Interest group websites, and survey and polls results are in the third tier.

Despite social media's deep penetration into other parts of our society, it is not considered a valuable resource to inform policy at all by congressional staff.

You now know more than some of the 12,000 plus lobbyists walking through the corridors of power on Capitol Hill. Use it to promote your passion -- whatever that passion might be.