If Politics Is Local, Advocacy Should Be Too

In recent years the most successful policy advocates began using traditional campaign techniques to advance their positions, supplementing “shoe leather” lobbying with earned and paid media, social media, and local stakeholder engagement. They are now increasingly supplementing Washington work with local and state-based work.

While Congress Shouts More (and does less) Who Is Filling the Policymaking Gap?

States and localities are stepping up and addressing issues that were once reserved for Congress – as the Washington Post put it last month, “In the absence of congressional action, individual states have passed their own laws.” For example, while candidates spend time and energy talking about how they want to change the immigration system and explaining why their past promises to do so have failed, “In 2013 and 2014, state legislatures passed 609 laws related to immigration, according to the National Conference of State Legislatures.” States and localities are tackling transportation, telecommunications, and a range of other issues once considered the purview of Congress.

The Shift Has Been Noticed

Those who spend money on Washington lobbyists to advance (or block) policies that support (or oppose) their interests have noticed this shift. If nothing is going to happen in Congress why spend limited dollars in futile efforts to make something happen or to block something that isn’t going to move anyway? This is bad news for those have historically been the recipients of that money. Earmarks are (at least officially) a thing of the past, tax laws aren’t moving, and sequestration is capping federal investment in everything from bridges to battleships. Paying a firm $10,000 – $20,000 a month (or more) to explain to Congress technical details of the impacts of tax provisions on a specific industry used to be a good investment with a potentially significant financial return. But with less moving in Washington that return is less certain – and companies and interest groups are less willing to invest in Congress. As a Washington Post July headline put it: “Washington gridlock drives lobby shops to focus on state policy battles.” The corollary to the late Speaker Tip O’Neil’s admonition that “all politics is local” is that policymaking and lobbying are local as well.

But Congress Still Matters

But entirely abandoning Washington is also not the answer. Congress matters, as do federal agencies and rule-makings, to say nothing of the President. And the state and federal systems are connected – states or regions can work together with their Congressional representation to tackle problems that cross state lines, such as telecommunications infrastructure, water, and transportation.

Think National, Lobby Local

The smartest advocates are finding local partners to help them work in state houses and at the local and county levels to advance policy. They are also connecting these efforts to each other, to diminish the threat of patchwork regulations or taxes that can bedevil companies (and are part of the reason for federal solutions that apply the same rules to everyone everywhere to begin with). These advocates are also connecting local efforts back to Washington, highlighting success in one state or locality to encourage Members of Congress to help create similar success in their states or districts, successes which then get connected to other local and regional efforts and back to Congress again.

Lobbying is, in part, about providing policy guidance directly to federal policy makers. And it is increasingly also about creating networks and campaigns across state capitals and city halls, and feeding those networks with information, media, online outreach, social media, and all of the other tools of a modern campaign.

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