Making a tough call for your policy issue – speak up or lay low?

Strategic decisions can be difficult to make during pivotal moments in the final days of session

BY TAYLOR BENNETT, POLICY COORDINATOR, THE HUB

As a bill works its way through the legislative process, it encounters a number of turning points at which its supporters need to make tough calls. For citizen lobbyists, or West Virginians who are interested in being a part of the policymaking process, the most difficult of these decisions may be determining whether a demonstration of public support – a loud voice – or working directly with legislators – a soft voice – is likelier to lead to success. 

Here’s an example: 

You haven’t heard any opposition to your bill, but it’s about to be read on the Senate or House Floor. Do you rally the troops and have your supporters call their legislators to ask them to vote “yes” on the bill, or do you choose not to call attention to your bill because more attention could mean more opposition? 

We’ve talked before about how critical it can be to call in a demonstration of wide-spread public support for your cause. Sometimes, it can be equally vital to a bill’s success to employ a different strategy. 

Here are two considerations to keep in mind:

1. Are legislators already headed in the right direction?

In some cases, action on a bill has stalled and it may take overwhelming pressure from the public to inspire action. In others, however, legislators may already see some or all of the merits of the bill you’re working on and are simply having a difficult time fitting it in to all of the work they have to do. If so, you might opt for a lower input strategy, having a few key supporters talk to legislators in person, rather than mounting a phone call or email offensive.

2. Would your decision create a fight where one does not already exist?

We all know that certain pieces of legislation can cause division at the legislature. If the issue you’re working on may cause legislators to come down on opposite sides of an argument, it pays to spend time developing responses to your opposition and preparing your legislative champions to use them. On the other hand, if you feel that many legislators generally support your cause, it’s important to think critically about how a decision to rally the troops may impact the situation. Creating a fight where there wasn’t one before can be counterproductive.

Here are a few important things to remember in situations where you’ve determined that a softer touch is necessary:

  • Continue to explore other options for action. Just because you decide that hundreds of supporters calling their legislators or hosting a rally at the Capitol isn’t the right course of action doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t act at all. Think about other ways that you can continue encouraging legislators to support or oppose a bill. You might consider smaller lobby meetings, personal outreach, or ask a supportive legislator to talk to them on your behalf.
  • Listen to your champions.
  • When things start to progress differently than what you’d hoped for, it’s easy to feel a moment of panic. When this happens, check in with the legislators who have been leading the charge on the bill in question. They often have more details about the process and the long term plan of leadership in the House and Senate than are being widely, publicly communicated. While this isn’t the only information to pay attention to, if they aren’t concerned, try to curb your worries.

 

For every citizen lobbyist, there will be moments in which you will need to determine whether a loud voice or a soft one will be more effective. Weighing these considerations can help ensure that these difficult decisions are well reasoned. In the end, the choices about how to support a piece of legislation belong to you and those supporting it with you.

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Last fall, we kicked off our HubCAP (Communities of Achievement Program) in six communities working on the Mon Forest Towns initiative: Cowen, Elkins, Franklin, Marlinton, Petersburg and White Sulphur Springs.

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