‘Adaptation’: How the new ethics rules will help get politics back to its roots

One of the favorite pastimes of Beltway insiders is the game of adaptation. Washington, more than any other city, is influenced by the national mood and the daily events that govern newspaper headlines. Over the years Washington has become a weigh station for populism and, as a result, trade associations are perceived as constantly hanging at the edge of national elections, perpetually adapting to the swing of the political pendulum.

Over the past century — largely since President Grant’s administration — there has been a visible cadence between shifts in philosophy beyond the Beltway and the tactics employed by trade groups influencing policy on Capitol Hill. But advocacy has evolved in the wake of unprecedented Get out the Vote (GOTV) efforts and well-funded grassroots operations over the past four election cycles. While faith in grassroots endeavors has risen since 2000, the latest congressional ethics rules will leave grassroots as “the chosen” among advocacy tactics. Successful trade associations will increasingly lean on their grassroots operations, particularly in light of some of the more convoluted corners of the welcome Senate and House reforms.

It is clear that the focus will return to mobilizing the voters at home and not the “good old boy network” once so prevalent inside the Beltway.

As one example, drawing upon the experiences within my organization, the American Chemistry Council has increasingly complimented our traditional federal lobbying with membership-driven grassroots activities backed by our more than 1,000,000 employees nationwide. After we identify our priority issues on everything ranging from rail security to energy, we work with our member companies to deploy their employees to visit and contact their Senators and Congressmen. This is the best method of channeling targeted phone calls, emails, letters and individual contributions.

On an issue critical to our industry and employees — natural gas — our industry responded with over 75,000 communications to the Hill. We believe this targeted form of Hill advocacy made a significant impact in moving the very lawmakers who only a year before were skeptical. It took 25 years to change policy, and it was ultimately accomplished the old-fashioned way. The natural gas debate is a visible example of the shift toward the medium of grassroots advocacy, which will only grow in effectiveness as communication technology becomes increasingly de-centralized through developments like blogs and other forms of Internet communication.

In expediting the shift through ethics reform, Congress has ensured that the volume of noise on Capitol Hill will be dictated by those who mobilize under a common concern, a uniting belief. And as grassroots becomes more streamlined, more professional, we should all note that in a town that thrives on adaptation, grassroots — the retail side of politics — is the oldest and most effective play in the book.

Gerard is president and CEO of the American Chemistry Council.