It’s week two of the 2015 legislative session in Olympia. The session convened last Monday, January 12. It’s scheduled to end on April 27. That’s 105 days. That’s about four months in which state lawmakers will begin legislative hearings and make all kinds of decisions that’ll affect your life. How can you make your voice heard on the issues you care about most? What’s the best way to connect with your legislator? Can you really make a difference? (Because “great minds think alike,” be sure to check out the related link, below.)
Joseph Backholm tackles all those questions and more in 8 Things You Need to Know About the Legislature. Joseph is the Director of the Family Policy Institute of Washington. His column, below, is used by permission.
Listen up, folks. Cuz this is really good stuff.
“Today (January 12, 2015) is the first day of a new 105 day session. Those we elected will begin legislative hearings and ultimately will make hundreds of decisions that will affect our lives.
During the next 105 days, we hope you will take the time to introduce yourself to your legislators and let them know how you feel about the issues you care about. The squeaky wheel usually does get the grease. Be kind, polite, and respectful, but be squeaky. And get your friends to be squeaky too.
Whether you’re considering if you should get involved or wondering how, here are eight things to remember about dealing with the legislature.
1. In politics, might makes right: The ideas that win in the legislature aren’t necessarily the best ideas, but the ideas with the most political support. You may be able to prove that your position will save money and lives, but if those who disagree with you have more political influence, they’re probably going to win anyway. You don’t have to like it, but you should believe it. So the key to influencing policy decisions is to make sure that supporting good ideas is politically advantageous. That means bringing people with you.
2. Everyone has good intentions: No one goes to the legislature saying, “I will become a tool that interest groups use to accomplish their purposes at the expense of the public.” They may have bad ideas, and they may eventually regret some of their decisions, but in their own mind they are generally doing the right thing for the right reasons. So if you want to build a relationship with your elected officials and ultimately influence them, don’t begin your conversation by accusing them of willfully causing harm. Give their motives the benefit of the doubt in the same way you hope others will do that for you.
3. Yes, you can make a difference: By virtue of being in elected office, many legislators are inherently insecure. In most cases, state elected officials were elected by a few thousand votes and some by only a few hundred (or less). They know that upsetting a significant number of voters is a good way to lose an election. As a result, your ability to generate even 20 phone calls or emails in a single day on an issue can make a big impact. They know that voters who care enough to contact them about an issue will also be willing to cast a vote on that issue as well.
4. Legislators are people too: None of us has performed perfectly in our jobs. We all need encouragement and we are all subject to being worn down by constant criticism. Yes, when someone runs for office there is a lot they are volunteering for, but encouragement and kindness is universally appreciated. In your dealings with elected officials, kindness is not only the right thing to do, it’s also much more likely to be effective.
5. Quantity is better than quality: Because the best argument doesn’t always win, it is a better use of time to spend two hours convincing 5 or 10 other people who share your perspective to contact their legislators than to spend it writing an irrefutable treatise on why your position is the right position. Of course you want to make good arguments, but good arguments without public support often don’t make it very far. So when it comes to communication with legislators, think quantity more than quality.
6. Legislators aren’t experts on everything: Every year, thousands of bills are introduced and hundreds are voted on. But it simply isn’t possible for a legislator to be an expert on every issue or understand the details of each bill. For the most part, legislators specialize on a few issues and then take advice from those they trust. They don’t want to be ignorant any more than you want them to be ignorant, but they know better than to believe everything they hear. So build credibility and become the educator they need on the issues you care about.
7. Personal communication is better communication: Lots of people ask what the most effective way to communicate with a legislator is. Really, it’s probably not that different than the most effective way to communicate with you. If someone shows up at your home or office to personally share concerns with you, that will probably make more of an impact on you than if they send an email. In general, here’s the most effective ways to communicate with your elected officials:
- personal visit
- hand-written letter
- personal phone call
- personal email or hotline message
- form email
While more personal communication is more effective, it remains true that quantity is better than quality. One hundred phone calls means a lot more than one personal visit. But one hundred personal visits is much better than one hundred phone calls. So be personal, but make sure you get lots of other people to do the same.
8. 1-800-562-6000: If you want to vent on the go, use the legislative hotline number. Program it into your phone right now because it allows you to contact your legislators even if you don’t know who they are. When you call this number you’ll reach a legislative hotline operator who will tell you who represents you once you provide your address then deliver whatever message you want to the Governor, your State Senator, and both your State Representatives. It isn’t the best way to communicate with your legislators, but sometimes it’s the best you can do and it’s a lot better than doing nothing.”
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