Have You Ever Lobbied Your Elected Officials?

The other night I posted video of Sean Faircloth talking about vital lobbying and organizational strategies which secularists need to employ in order to turn the political tide in the U.S. away from its troublingly theocratic current direction. The day before the Reason Rally, the Secular Coalition for America held a “Lobby Day for Reason”. The Secular Coalition for America arranged meetings between secular constituents and Congressional staffs so that these citizens could share their political concerns as secularists. Dean Buchanan writes about his experience:

Open the Door!

An anecdote about constituent lobbying:

The Secular Coalition for America sponsored a Lobby Day for Reason on the Friday before the reason rally.

My spouse, 10 year old son, and I participated. I can report that it is extremely personally empowering to be in a group of atheists/humanists/etceterists, sitting around a table with a top aid of our representative or senator and saying, one-after-another,

“Hi, I’m(nym here)and I am an atheist(or etcetera). (Our group was mostly atheists).

There is no question that the staff people had never heard or considered their non-theist constituents. The staff were particularly touched by my son who bravely spoke his mind about the Pledge of Allegiance that his school repeats daily, and that atheists are people too.
Our group met with very senior people (legislative directors and top health advisers).

We were allotted 15 minutes but each meeting went well over 30 minutes and the conversations were great.

The personal stories (like Sean promotes) and the personal interaction can break through and open doors to communication.
As a practical consequence of our meetings, all of the aids want to know what the Secular Coalition thinks about any pending legislation in the future. Now I live in a liberal state so not everyone’s experience will be that positive I am sure. But after the meeting, you have a name, an email address, and the door’s open, at least a little.

I think everyone should try it, just do it in a group if possible.

What are your experiences with lobbying? What have you found works and what does not? Did you participate in the Lobby Day for Reason? If so, please share your experience!

Your Thoughts and Experiences?

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About Daniel Fincke

Dr. Daniel Fincke  has his PhD in philosophy from Fordham University and spent 11 years teaching in college classrooms. He wrote his dissertation on Ethics and the philosophy of Friedrich Nietzsche. On Camels With Hammers, the careful philosophy blog he writes for a popular audience, Dan argues for atheism and develops a humanistic ethical theory he calls “Empowerment Ethics”. Dan also teaches affordable, non-matriculated, video-conferencing philosophy classes on ethics, Nietzsche, historical philosophy, and philosophy for atheists that anyone around the world can sign up for. (You can learn more about Dan’s online classes here.) Dan is an APPA  (American Philosophical Practitioners Association) certified philosophical counselor who offers philosophical advice services to help people work through the philosophical aspects of their practical problems or to work out their views on philosophical issues. (You can read examples of Dan’s advice here.) Through his blogging, his online teaching, and his philosophical advice services each, Dan specializes in helping people who have recently left a religious tradition work out their constructive answers to questions of ethics, metaphysics, the meaning of life, etc. as part of their process of radical worldview change.

  • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

    I’ve been lobbying for years, and it can be a whole lot of fun or very frustrating. I’m trying to work with a number of local groups to put on a weekend of secular lobbying training. I’ll keep you posted!

    • http://freethoughtblogs.com/camelswithhammers Daniel Fincke

      Please do and I’ll highlight it.

    • http://thelatinone.com/blog thelatinone

      James, are you organizing it in Cambridge (Mass)? I’d love to go.

    • http://templeofthefuture.net James Croft

      Yup – first one will be in Cambridge, MA, and then we hope perhaps to do it as part of a bigger training event elsewhere!

  • Crip Dyke, Right Reverend Feminist FuckToy of Death & Her Handmaiden

    Yes, I’ve lobbied non-professionally at both the state and federal level. I’ve never testified in an open committee hearing, but meetings with staffers and even elected officials have happened. Sometimes I’ve been alone, sometimes with a group.

    I’m cynical about it. I think real change takes relationships or some sort of ability to affect the legislator. If you can give a major campaign donation ($50 doesn’t cut it), and you do so more than once to a candidate or to the candidates of a particular party in a particular district, you will get a personal (or local) reputation as a valuable source of funds. At that point, b/c you are seen as able to affect the legislator’s career and thus the legislator’s ability to reach personal goals, your stance on a particular issue might become important, given other necessary presuppositions.

    If you have a reputation as someone who is right on an issue consistently over time – someone not only with expertise, but who speaks publicly in ways that make risky predictions about the future that pan out – you will be listened to in your particular area of expertise. But a single conversation or article is not enough. This just can’t work in the sense of building a reputation if you only take a public stand one time. This is a long term strategy, and though you don’t have to be right, you do have to be markedly more right than conventional wisdom (unless your megaphone is so big that you are seen as creating the conventional wisdom…and I don’t think this post is aimed at such people).

    Finally, you can develop friendships or personal relationships with staffers or legislators. This is tricky – if you just speak about your issue you either have to establish yourself as an expert (see above) or you risk being seen as a crank. You must be willing to spend time talking about (and acting on!) the priorities of those others. Friendships are reciprocal and if you don’t have a reciprocal relationship, you don’t have a friendship.

    When something is truly unfamiliar or different, and if you aren’t seen as a crank, then “exposing” the legislator (possibly through aides) to things like the lives of atheists can be marginally productive. It reminds the legislator of the existence of a constituency group and maybe during particular floor votes about which the legislator is ambivalent such an awareness can make a positive difference.

    But I’ve seen it too many times: there simply isn’t a long term effect with the kinds of lobbying discussed…if by that we mean an effect on the legislator.

    Instead, I’m happy that the person wrote about the effect on the person lobbying. I know the first time I made an appt with my congressional rep I felt empowered and motivated. It fueled me to get my arguments in line, to consider potential objections to or holes in my arguments, and then to use those now familiar arguments in many other contexts. This is a good thing to do – social lobbying – in the sense that it brings folk together, fires passions, creates senses of empowerment, and disciplines arguments and messages. But this is a social activity primarily, not a legislative activity per se, at least judged by what I have seen over the last 15 years.

    As a throw away, I’ll say this: if you really want to have a legislative effect come from something like this, work with someone local to the relevant capital. Have that person schedule each and every one of those meetings **on behalf of** the relevant constituents but making clear the name of the scheduler and that the scheduler (whether a constituent of the same jurisdiction or not) will accompany the amateur lobbyists. The constituents can do this as social lobbying (lobbying in which a number of people come in together and do not focus on a specific bill or potential bill) and the scheduler need not even speak, However, by showing up multiple times to multiple legislators’ offices, that scheduler ends up developing the relationships necessary to be heard in a way that truly affects legislation (so long as the resultant political capitol isn’t overspent). Moreover, the scheduler sits in on all the meetings and thus actually hears a diverse range of viewpoints and so legitimately is more educated on what a community favors/does not favor and can get some of the “expert” cred along with the personal relationship currency.

    Hope this helps & is interesting reading. This can be a dry or very exciting topic, according to individual interest.

    • Nicoline Smits

      Perhaps I haven’t been involved in lobbying long enough to become cynical about it, but my experience has been quite different. I’ve lobbied my state legislators for years about the question of marriage equality, coming to the state capital on a designated day and talking to them in a business-like and polite manner. This year, for the first time, I attended both the senate and the house committee hearings on the issue and testified at the latter. It has been a good experience, the more so since my state finally voted for marriage equality, even though the opposition will most likely gather enough signatures to place the question on the November ballot.
      I don’t know that there is a concerted lobbying effort in my state from atheist/agnostic constituents, but I would love to get some more information on how to go about organizing such a thing and I would certainly get involved in it!

  • http://thelatinone.com/blog thelatinone

    I’ve done lobbying since I was in college. Of course, the main problem with lobbying is that it needs to be sustained. Last summer I was teaching a politics course for high school students. They complained that one day they met with their school board and they promised things that didn’t materialize. I asked them if they went back and ask again. The students said “why should we, they [the board] certainly don’t care.” To which I responded, asking them how many of them clean up their rooms immediately after being told by their parents to do so. None raised a hand. The lesson at home and with public officials is that to get attention you need to keep at it. We need more than a day of lobbying, we need lobbyists. The Secular Coalition is an excellent outlet for that and we should root for its success.

  • Morejello

    I have lobbied my state senators and representatives. For 4 years we have worked against Statewide Franchising for cable systems, because the evidence shows that it hurts Access television (I work for one) in any state that adopts the statewide model. In the past we have been fortunate enough to have some industry lobbyists on our side, and we won. this year it was just constituents opposing the bill, and we were treated like children who didn’t understand what the grown-ups were talking about. The lobbyist who wrote the bill could say any bullshit that he wanted to and the legislators ate it up like it was gold, but if a constituent had a concern, no amount of data or examples of how the lobbyist was wrong would make them listen. The Committee chairperson flat out told people when they called that he didn;t care what they thought, and the committee secretary decided that it wasn’t important enough to log the hundreds of calls from citizens opposing the bill. Even legislators that we knew on a personal level – people we considered friends – suddenly switched to “you just don’t understand” mode when we tried to talk to them about it.
    Once upon a time I believed that the system was skewed, but that citizens could make a difference on a smaller level. Now I believe that it’s just plain broken. Legislators have so much crap dumped on them that they tune everything out except the “experts” who can afford to spend time and money to pound their message through *every day* in the legislature.

  • ‘Tis Himself

    Have You Ever Lobbied Your Elected Officials?


    • ‘Tis Himself

      I am on a first name basis with my local congresscritter. I know the guy who’s running against him in November. One of my senators, Joseph Lieberman, knows exactly why I’d never vote for him again (most of the rest of the state agrees with me, which is why Lieberman won’t be running for reelection this year. I’ve never met my other senator.

    • http://thelatinone.com/blog thelatinone

      Larson, Courtney, DeLauro, Himes, Murphy? Nutmegger here…