Frontline Initiative Legislative Advocacy

DSPs in Action:
Lobbying to Make a Difference


Mark Homan is the Arizona representative of the NADSP

Those who play the game make the rules. Remember your backyard games when you were a kid? Your own modified version of baseball, soccer, Frisbee, football, tag, or hide-and-go-seek. You created rules to adapt the game to the quirks of the playing field (yard, street, or park), the number and skill of the other kids, and the materials you had at hand. Do you remember that the kids who were biggest, most skilled, or who owned the ball, had more influence over the rules than anybody else? Welcome to politics.

Have you ever complained about the circumstances you have to deal with? The lack of funding for essential programs? The numbing ignorance of public policies? You sit there fuming at the stupidity of state legislators or other policymakers, wondering what they were thinking. I bet you’ve heard or even said something like, “They don’t know anything!” You may have even used language that is, well, less than polite. Hmm . . . . If they don’t know, shouldn’t someone tell them? You may need to begin playing the game yourself. Welcome to lobbying.

Lobbying generally refers to influencing the decisions of policy setting bodies, such as Congress, state legislatures and city councils, though there are other decisionmakers who might deserve your attention. Agency policies and procedures, as well as regulations that give life to laws, are appropriate targets of lobbying. Because many of the decisions that affect your work are made there, and because you can have significant impact on these decisions, the focus of this piece will be on working with a state legislature.

As a citizen you have many opportunities to make your voice heard. A simple e-mail, phone call, or personal letter to your legislator is a good start. Still, some of you may want to make a more substantial commitment to influencing public policy. Even if you are not involved as a full-time lobbyist, you can participate meaningfully in the political process.

So what do you need to know in order to be effective at playing this game? That’s a tall order for a short article. This article will to introduce you to some basics, and then suggest a few ways for you to add to your understanding. 

Understand That You Need to Work With Others

 As interesting and devoted as you are, acting alone will not get you very far. You are much better served by working in collaboration with others who share your same goals. The more you are organized, the more effective you are likely to be. So, when I say “you,” I am not just referring to you as an individual, but to all of “you” who are DSPs letting legislators know your issues. Get support and help from your coworkers, DSPs from other agencies, and activists in other organizations. Consider collaborating with self-advocates or other advocacy groups.

Understand the Process

You need to understand how the legislature in your state works. Each state will have its unique features, like Nebraska’s unicameral legislature and New Mexico’s meeting schedules. Except for Nebraska, each state has two chambers, usually a Senate and a House or Assembly. So even though the general process is pretty common, you will want to learn about rules that govern such things as how legislation is drafted and introduced, how it is voted on, and the roles and responsibilities of each chamber. To learn more about the legislature in your state, check out the internet. Almost every state legislature has a Web site packed with information.

Understand the Basic Steps

  • Legislative session: find out when the legislature begins its session, the time it considers legislation, and how long the session is likely to last.
  • Drafting and introduction of legislation: This is the first step in the process, preparing legislation and offering it for consideration. Proposed legislation is commonly called a bill. This process is often called introducing a bill.
  • First reading, assignment of bill to a committee: Once a bill has been filed, it is formally read into the record and assigned to one or more committees. For example, a bill related to health and human services funding would be assigned to the Health and Human Services Finance Committee, which renews funding proposals for the Department of Human Services, the Department of Health, the Council on Disabilities, the Veterans Homes Board, and all health-related licensing boards and ombudsman offices.
  • Committee hearing: The bill is then heard in committee. The committee members (legislators) may hear testimony on the bill from people who have interest in it. This could include you. Committee members may change or amend the bill in committee. Generally a bill must be approved by the majority of the committee in order for it to continue throughout the process. If it is not, it is usually dead. This is commonly referred to as “died in committee.”
  • Floor action: After passing out of committee, the bill is considered by all the members of the chamber (e.g., Senate, House, or Assembly). Consideration is demonstrated by the members voting for or against the bill. The bill can be amended here as well. It has to receive the majority of votes from the whole chamber to keep going.
  • Action by the other chamber: Once it passes one chamber, the process is repeated again in the other chamber (if there is one).
  • Concurrence of amendments and conference committees: A bill might be amended in the second chamber. If the members of the chamber that first heard the bill don’t agree to these changes, a conference committee, made up of members from both chambers, is appointed to work out an agreement. Conference committee is when bills often die, since it’s unlikely that the two chambers can come to agreement on their differences.
  • Governor’s office: Once the bill passes the legislature, it is sent to the governor to sign. If the governor vetoes the bill, the legislature may have a chance to override the veto. Usually this requires the support of two thirds (overwhelming majority) of the members of each chamber.

Whew! That’s just a skeleton outline. There may be sub-committees involved, special ways to revive “dead” bills, several public hearings, preliminary votes, and other fun and games. Two things are important to understand. First, with all these steps, it is not easy to get legislation passed. Second, you can influence the outcome at any point in this process.

Understand Your Players

Get to know legislators. Learn their political philosophies, areas of interest, and status among other legislators. You also want to learn which districts they represent and as much as you can about their personal background. The more you know about them, the better able you will be to relate to them. Of course, you especially want to know what they think and feel about your issues.

Understand the Language

Just what is a bill, when is cloture used, and if legislation is engrossed, does that mean it is messy? DSPs have their own language about the work that they do. So does the legislature. Fortunately, most legislatures provide a glossary that helps you understand what people are saying. For example, a bill is a proposal calling for a new law, a change in current law, the repeal of current law, or a constitutional amendment. Cloture means the closing or limitation of debate in a legislative body especially by calling for a vote, and engrossed means the current text of a bill or resolution which includes or incorporates all adopted amendments to the title and/or text.

Understand Regulations

You may have to register as a lobbyist if you intend to spend time trying to influence legislation, even if you are not paid to do so. Also, be aware that there are certain limits on lobbying for tax-exempt, non-profit social service agencies (those with the IRS designation as 501(c)(3) organizations). There is a common myth that these organizations cannot lobby. The fact is, they can and should. However, there are limitations. Federal law limits the amount of time and resources an organization may devote to its lobbying efforts. You will have to look into the substantiality and expenditure tests based on your exempt status. Each state may have specific limitations which you should know about. Check with your state’s Campaign Finance and Public Disclosure office or IRS office for specific information. Non-profits are not allowed to engage in partisan or candidate campaigns and may not use government funds, grants, or contracts to lobby.

Understand Sources of Influence

 Influence flows from the power of an idea, the power of those who offer ideas, and the power of relationships. You have access to all these types of power. Yes, though other people may have more, you do have some at your disposal. The more you can show that your idea is compelling and that you are backed by a well organized group that can provide campaign workers or command money, media attention, or votes, the better off you will be. If you and your allies have developed personal relationships with a number of lawmakers, you will have more ready and receptive access. Finally, there is the matter of credibility. It is your greatest individual asset, and it is based on three things —

  1. Your credibility as a person. For example, can you be trusted?
  2. The credibility of your information. For example, is it timely and accurate?
  3. The credibility of your power base. For example, can you mobilize other people in support of your position?

Understand the Need to Set a Legislative Agenda

Do you intend to support or defeat legislation? Are you going to develop new legislation, influence proposed legislation, or modify legislation in process? Which legislation are you really going to work on? Realize that legislation is only one approach to making changes. Be sure that making a change in law is what you want. Many legislators are impatient with those who seek legislative change when simpler methods would do.

Understand That you Need to Start Early

Regular legislative sessions start in January and most end by May. However, if you begin your work in January or only deal with the legislature while it is in session, you are too late. You need to begin conversations with supporters and legislators months in advance. Spend the summer visiting with your legislators while they are back in their home districts, or better yet, invite them to your place of employment so they can see what DSPs are all about and meet the individuals you support.

Understand how to Increase Your Effectiveness

Essentially, lobbying involves your talking with legislators to convince them to support or oppose legislation. So, you have to be willing to talk with legislators as well with as other people who talk with legislators. You will want to continue to improve your ability to communicate. Be prepared with your information and be clear about what you are asking. Anticipate arguments so that you can preempt or counter them. Discover and use possible areas of common ground or interest. Demonstrate that your position is based on a strong command of the issue. Let the listener know your position, your professional expertise, and your experience. Some other things —

  • Get known. Once legislators know you they will pay more attention to your calls, letters, and opinions.
  • Observe the body in action. Attend a few sessions or committee hearings so that you become more familiar with the process.
  • Decide who to approach. Lobby supporters first to alert and activate them; lobby “undecideds” next. Do not lobby strong opponents. You are unlikely to change their minds, and you might increase their active opposition.
  • Get to know key staff people. Key staff may be more accessible and they often shape legislators’ opinions.
  • Prepare fact sheets. In one page summarize the cost and impact of responding to or ignoring your issue.
  • Anticipate the likelihood of compromises. Rarely will you get everything you want. Be prepared with what you can compromise and what you can’t.
  • Use testimony to strengthen your case. Participating in legislative hearings gives legitimacy to your issue and your organization. Coordinate testimony with your allies. Tailor your presentation to the legislators you most want to influence. Make distinct points using a combination of personal experiences and factual information. Things to touch on: your interest in the bill and how you arrived at your conclusions; who will benefit; who will be hurt by inaction and how; and cost efficiency of your position.

Entering into the legislative arena is exciting and meaningful. It can be a little scary and confusing too, especially when you first get started. The best way to get going and to learn more is by working with someone who already knows what they are doing. State and local chapters of the Arc, a national organization of and for people with intellectual disabilities and their families, will likely have people familiar with the legislative process in your area.

Working on political campaigns is a rather simple and interesting way to get involved. You come to know legislators and their staff and supporters. These people can give you some guidance and introduce you to others. Public interest groups like the League of Women Voters and Common Cause can provide direction. Attend town meetings where legislative representatives invite the public to speak out on issues.

Of course you can do a little reading. Newsletters of advocacy groups will give you information on current concerns. Special publications dealing with legislative matters are commonly available. You can read the political section of the newspaper to learn more about the current debates. A couple of books dealing with political involvement are: Affecting Change: Social Workers in the Political Arena by Haynes and Mickelson, and Lobbying for Social Change by Richan.

Finally, you can explore the Internet. Each state has its own Web site with valuable links. One specific site I’d recommend, that gets you to all of the state legislatures, is that of the National Conference of State Legislatures .

Poorly crafted public policies are a problem. Like any problem, you can decide to let this problem persist, you can hope it will correct itself on its own, or, you can do something about it. What are you going to do?

* Note: for the purposes of this article the term “lobbyist” has the meaning of a person getting their voice heard on an issue they feel strongly about, or advocacy. Any citizen can talk to a legislator to have their voice heard. This is different from a “professional” lobbyist who is paid to represent a particular point of view for a business or organization.