Know your audience, find a dance partner

When lobbying Congress, there are certain things that are very basic and yet seem to be forgotten in the rush to get things done and win the issue. These basics are probably more important than ever in the atmosphere and politics of the 110th Congress, given the early start of the presidential election cycle, the slim majorities in both the House and Senate, and polling data results that reflect a divided nation.

Of course, the first basic point is always to be mindful of a member of Congress’s time and to get to your point as quickly as possible, with the key being to remember the category to which your issue applies. Although there are some gray areas, the way I see things as both a lobbyist and a former member is that elected officials generally have two issue categories: conscience and politics/economics.

Issues of conscience relate to philosophy and personal belief. These include abortion, the death penalty, stem cell research and gun control. When it comes to these areas, it is extremely difficult — if not impossible — to convince a member to change his or her mind, unless there is significant new information.

The second category encompasses all issues of politics and/or economics. These include: whether to build a bridge in the north or south end of a state; whether a particular subsidy or tax increase is granted to business or industry; or any other
questions of daily political or economic life.

It is with these issues that solid advocacy and strong constituent support can have the most influence and impact on a member’s thinking.

I am always mindful that virtually every elected official has his or her own “special interest.” As a young, first-term congressman from South Florida, I confided to a colleague that I was about to cast a vote under extreme pressure from a vital constituency in my district — senior citizens. Essentially, my gut instinct conflicted with the emotions of this important group. The colleague, House Commerce Committee Chairman Harley Staggers (D-W.Va.), said to me, “In my state, I have a large coal interest, and coal is my base. As long as I support coal, I am OK. I can vote on any other issue any way I want. Every member has his coal. It seems to me as if senior citizens are your coal.”

Then Staggers said, “Never ask a member to vote against his coal.”

Suffice it to say, advocates should know and respect a member’s “coal.” It seems basic, but I see people overlooking this almost every day. Further, there is an inherent “self-preservation” interest that comes to play in every vote a member casts. No matter how strong or tough elected officials talk, they are always mindful of the impact of their votes. To that end, no member likes to be caught in unnecessary and controversial votes. Again, this holds particularly true in the current Congress, in which there is only the narrowest of margins.

This point reminds me of another story involving the then-chairman of the all-important House Ways and Means Committee, Dan Rostenkowski (D-Ill.). As I was leaving Congress and beginning a new career as an insurance industry lobbyist, a battle broke out between stock and mutual insurance companies, with both sides demanding that the other pay more taxes.

Chairman Rostenkowski called me and said, “I am not going to get my members fighting in between these two groups. Tell them to knock it off or they’ll both have a problem.” I passed the message on to the industry — but it was ignored. The committee then held a closed session and reported out a major tax increase for both sides.

Rostenkowski called me again and asked to speak to the leaders of both groups. At a meeting arranged quickly, he walked in and announced: “I told you to knock it off or you were going to force me to have our members cast an unnecessary vote, and now it has cost you both billions of dollars. Each of your sides came up and gave us a roadmap on how to tax the other.
If you don’t stop you’ll get taxed again.”

Then he walked out of the room.

That day, the titans of a powerful industry learned a lesson that applies today and particularly in the current Congress.
That is: It would have been much better for the groups to fight their battle amongst themselves and to go to the Congress with a solution that gave modest relief to each side, allowing members the opportunity to avoid a major fight.

In my eyes, this Congress is even more sensitive now than any I recall in the past 40 years about being forced into non-essential battles. They have enough to do with Iraq, the economy, and presidential and personal politics.

So my message to those advocating today is simply this: If possible, find a “dance partner” among your traditional opponents and approach the Congress with something that represents the best interest of each party and involves good public policy. Take a reasonable piece of the pie, and put off the major battles for another day.

If you do not, you risk not only failing to get what you want, but also losing a great deal.

Daniel A. Mica is the president and chief executive of the Credit Union National Association (CUNA), which represents nearly 8,500 credit unions with 90 million members. He was a congressman (D-Fla.) from 1979-89.