When the people speak

The debate over comprehensive immigration reform legislation continues, even though the legislative process itself has come to a temporary pause.

Here in Washington, the legislation is being lobbied as a major priority for a number of powerful business interests, especially the technology community. A formidable coalition including the Bush administration, Democratic leadership and many Hill Republicans have been working feverishly toward passage. Vast amounts of corporate resources have gone to lobbying efforts to convince members of Congress to pass a bill.

Yet, though I suspect the final chapter to this story is yet to be written, at the present time, we don’t have a new immigration law.

It reminds me of the old story that marketing people like to tell about the chief executive of a dog food company. As the tale goes, the CEO calls a meeting with his senior executives to examine their dire situation, which he reviews. They spent huge sums of money on developing the product, packaging, advertising, building a vast distribution network and product placement. Still, their sales lag far behind their competitors’. Finally, the exasperated CEO asks, “What’s wrong here?!” To which one brave employee wryly responds, “Sir, the dogs don’t like it.”

The analogy only goes so far, of course, but it makes an important point: Sometimes, regardless of the intensity and sophistication of the lobbying strategy, at the end of the day, if the people don’t agree with the objectives of the strategy, Congress is unlikely to act.
That just may be the case with this immigration bill.

A recent Rasmussen Reports survey found that only 22 percent of American voters favor the legislation. “Among the public, there is a bi-partisan lack of enthusiasm for the Senate bill. It is supported by 22 percent of Republicans, 23 percent of Democrats, and 22 percent of those not affiliated with either major party. It is opposed by 52 percent of Republicans, 50 percent of Democrats, and 48 percent of unaffiliateds … Forty-five percent believe it would be better to pass nothing at all,” Rasmussen found.

These are not encouraging data for those hoping for immigration reform any time soon.

Any effective lobbying strategy has to take into account what the public actually wants — especially when the public is speaking so clearly on an issue. The result is not necessarily always what you want, personally or for your client, but the numbers don’t lie.

For purposes of full disclosure, I represent a number of clients who support a comprehensive immigration reform bill. Many smart, well connected, talented people are working together in the attempt to pass this legislation. There is no mystery to the reason that most effective lobbying campaigns now also include a grassroots and advertising component, along with traditional lobbying.

In another example of clear public opinion impacting policy, my firm represented the United Arab Emirates during the Dubai Ports World port security debate. A number of knowledgeable former government officials lobbied the Congress and administration in favor of DPW and the UAE. As far as I know, no one lined up to actively lobby Congress against DPW in an organized way. That didn’t mean the American people weren’t paying attention, and formulating strong views on the subject. Many members of Congress stood firm, DPW relented, and the port security deal stalled.

ANWR (Arctic National Wildlife Refuge) is another example of K Street efforts stymied. The energy industry, Alaskan interests, the broader business community, union support and some national security advocates urging U.S. energy independence have joined forces, advocating for further oil exploration and drilling rights. However, a loyal opposition of environmental groups with significantly less financing has been successful in holding off legislation. Why? One major reason for their success: extremely effective grassroots. The people. They’re passionate about the issue, and they make their voices heard. And when that happens, elected officials tend to listen.

As the Congress gets back to work on the Hill following the 4th of July recess, it is good to know that the voices of the people are still heard in Washington — regardless of whether one agrees every time with what those voices are saying.

Vin Weber is CEO of the business, government and public affairs consulting firm Clark & Weinstock. He served in the House from 1981 to 1993, representing Minnesota’s 2nd district.