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Lobbying for peace

Lobbying for peace
© Greg Nash

With the United States in near-constant military conflict and its defense spending far outpacing any other country, lobbying against war is often a discouraging effort.

But Diane Randall, executive secretary of the Friends Committee on National Legislation (FCNL), can easily list recent accomplishments in the peace-building movement.

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There’s the Iran nuclear deal, the decreasing popularity of sending ground troops into new conflicts and limits on defense spending in last year’s Budget Control Act, among other small, incremental steps.

Randall’s group is the lobbying arm of the Religious Society of Friends, or the Quakers, who have a more than three-century history of protesting war and violence. Lately, with an expanding staff that includes about 10 lobbyists, the FCNL has also waded into climate change, criminal justice, immigration and other policy areas.

Randall, 60, is an optimist, and her faith in humanity is nearly universal. She cites increasing studies around the world, particularly at universities and nongovernment organizations, on nonviolent conflict resolution.

“We’re beginning to see a different way that human beings can live together in the world,” she said. “And despite all the problems we have and all the violence we see in many places, and the willingness to disregard science or to be self-centered, I feel like we’re evolving.”

Those who don’t personally know a Quaker, didn’t attend a Quaker college or otherwise aren’t familiar with the religion may think it extinct or associate it with oatmeal. Lobbying, often thought of in connection with big business and backroom deals, also might not fit with the view of the Quakers.

Randall, who has led the group for four years, has heard it all in her meetings with congressional staff and those she’s lobbied.

“I’d say with most staffers, if they understand it, they know it’s a historical organization that’s worked on peace, that has worked more recently on climate change and that approaches its work from, I hope, a place of integrity,” Randall said from the organization’s headquarters across the street from the Senate’s Hart Office Building on Capitol Hill.

She’s not afraid to label her work as lobbying and is proud to say she’s trying to influence policy.

Many Quakers, Randall said, feel a motivation to make changes in the world, which could manifest itself in the choice to become a teacher, a social worker or a scientist.

“One of those manifestations about how you can be active in the world is becoming politically engaged,” she said.

Randall estimates that only about one-third of the 43 employees at the Friends Committee are Quakers. The group, founded 73 years ago, is funded by contributions from Quaker congregations around the country.

And as part of the deeply held Quaker belief in democracy, the FCNL gets its marching orders every two years from surveys it sends around the country to congregations, which it then must interpret and boil down into action plans.

“They come back as pretty lofty ideals,” Randall said. “They come back as ‘address nuclear disarmament and nonproliferation and the use of nuclear weapons,’ or ‘reverse and mitigate climate change,’ ” which the staff has to interpret into more specific plans.

Randall herself did not grow up Quaker. She came to the religion in her 20s in Nebraska, when she was concerned about nuclear weapons and the Cold War.

“Honestly, a lot of it had to do with becoming a mother,” she said. “When I had my son and I became familiar with what was happening with the nuclear freeze movement way back in the ’80s, I thought, ‘This is crazy that we have this many nuclear weapons. What can be done about it?’ ”

She didn’t immediately go into policy advocacy, but she eventually moved to Connecticut and advocated for the homeless and affordable-housing policies as head of the Partnership for Strong Communities, where she was before joining the FCNL.

The nuclear Iran deal, known technically as the Joint Comprehensive Plan of Action, has been one of President Obama’s most controversial foreign policy decisions. Iran agreed to certain measures meant to hobble its nuclear weapons program, while the United States and other major world powers, in return, agreed to slowly roll back sanctions on the Islamic nation.

The FCNL, which has been involved in nuclear nonproliferation for decades, saw the Iran deal as an important step toward further reducing the presence of nuclear weapons in the world, even if it’s just an incremental move.

The group and its allies focused their attention on lobbying lawmakers against efforts to block the deal. Opponents had a high bar and needed two-thirds of both the House and the Senate to vote against it.

But the Friends Committee mobilized like never before in support of the deal. Paramount to its effort was tapping its grassroots network — something Randall has focused heavily on building in her time at the group — to reach out to lawmakers themselves.

“It was exciting to be able to participate in that and work with the coalition that came together,” Randall said, calling it a “huge” victory for nonproliferation.

Joe Cirincione, president of the Ploughshares Fund, said the Iran deal might have failed without Randall and the Friends Committee.

“FCNL was one of the core, critical partners securing that deal,” he said.

“You had lots of experts weighing in. In the nuclear world, there was nearly unanimous consent that this is a solid deal worth supporting. But experts don’t carry that many votes. You needed to have strong, disciplined, grassroots groups out there demonstrating support for the deal. And that’s where FCNL was so essential.”

Cirincione said the FCNL’s role on peace building has consistently surprised him and others in the movement.

“There are very few organizations in town with this kind of advocacy machinery. And FCNL punches way above their weight class,” he said.

On climate, lobbyists at the FCNL identified two areas into which they channel their efforts: uniting Republicans who want to take action on climate change and working to ensure the United States contributes to the U.N.’s Green Climate Fund.

“It was clear that if you’re going to make change, you have to figure out where there’s common ground, and there wasn’t a lot of common ground on climate change with Republicans,” Randall said.

The most visible result of those climate efforts has been Rep. Chris Gibson’s (R-N.Y.) resolution on climate change introduced last year, promoting “conservative environmental stewardship.” It’s unlikely to pass, but, thanks in part to the FCNL, it’s picked up 12 GOP co-sponsors and gotten significant attention as a dissent to Republicans’ opposition to climate policies.

Jim Winkler, president of the National Council of Churches, said that’s par for the course for the FCNL, especially under Randall’s leadership.

Winkler said a key to the FCNL’s success is its strong support among Quaker congregations and the resulting strong fundraising mechanism. Other faith lobbying offices have been shrinking in recent years as their budgets — a share of their congregations’ budgets — have dropped.

“FCNL has managed to stay steady, if not expand. That’s added to their strength and credibility,” he said. “They seem to be going from strength to strength, whereas many of us feel like we’re running hard to stay in place.”