The opportunity to sit down with your senator, to walk the halls of power from City Hall to the Capitol, even just to tell a congressional intern what you care about today – the privileges of democracy are thrilling, and they’re open to anyone.
My first-ever lobbying experience was under the aegis of the Reform movement, when my synagogue’s confirmation class took a trip to Washington, D.C. and spent a day on the Hill with the Religious Action Center (RAC). I was privileged to hear again from the RAC last Thursday, when as a Jewish professional I traveled to Washington for the Jewish Federations of North America’s Jewish Disability Advocacy Day, part of Jewish Disability Awareness Month.
We heard Barbara Weinstein’s invaluable overview of how to be a “chai-powered” lobbyist. Later, on the Hill, we lobbied for the Achieving a Better Life Experience (ABLE) Act, which would create tax-advantaged savings accounts for people with disabilities that would supplement, not supplant, existing government benefits like Medicaid and Supplemental Security Income (SSI). It would also enable account owners to pay for a wide range of qualified expenses including education, rent, and assistive technology.
Alternately speed-walking through and getting lost in the massive hallways of several House Office Buildings, I was surprised by the reticence of fellow professionals who intimately know their field and deeply believed in the importance of what we were doing. Even high-powered people can be daunted when it comes to asking for an elected official’s support. I’ve encountered the same phenomenon each time I’ve lobbied, no matter what the issue or who the group members are, and it’s baffling because that timidity undermines the urgency of our advocacy.
In this situation, with 331 Representatives and 61 Senators from both parties co-sponsoring ABLE, there’s not much of a case to be made against the bill’s essential merits – so why not throw the full force of ourselves behind it? It’s just politics at this point. Convincing elected officials and their staff to care about any issue requires a combination of knowledge, confidence and passion that almost anyone with a personal or professional interest in a given topic can develop. For Jewish activists who have the opportunity to advocate for the rights of people with disabilities this month, here are a few pointers for summoning the effective advocate within.
• Create an opportunity to advocate. The official day has passed, but staffers told us over and over that members love to hear from constituents in their district. If you have a group of concerned constituents, make an appointment to meet with a representative or staff in the district office – or just call the office.
• In any meeting, know the basics really well. You don't have to be an expert in the field, but you must have your elevator pitch down pat so you project confidence from the beginning. My team’s most successful meeting of the day was at Representative’s Grace Meng's office, where the Legislative Director heard our elevator pitch, immediately grasped ABLE's importance, and pledged the Congresswoman's co-sponsorship on the spot.
• After explaining your own position, remember to ask the representative’s. You might be surprised by what you learn. On Thursday, we heard three times from staffers that ABLE simply hadn’t crossed their bosses’ desks, either at all or in that session of Congress. It’s unlikely a member will co-sponsor a bill if no constituents ever express interest or support, so whoever you are – one parent of a child with a disability or the policy director for a major local nonprofit – you have the power to influence that member.
• Don't get flustered. As currently formulated, the passage of ABLE is predicated upon comprehensive tax reform. Not many Capitol Hill insiders radiate optimism on the subject. A friendly staffer laughed in our faces when we told him that was the plan for ABLE's passage. But we knew we needed to paint a broader picture. Regardless of what happens in this session, we are building a constituency of grassroots activists and a coalition of overwhelming support in both the House and Senate. Tax reform may or may not happen, but if another opportunity arises to attach ABLE to a viable law, no hurdles will stand in its way.
• Offer your help as a resource if the member has any questions. You are a constituent, or you represent or work with constituents, or you're an expert in the field of concerns many constituents share. Thank the staffer and maintain lines of contact after the meeting.
On a federal level, only about 5 percent of introduced bills become law, and the strength of citizen advocacy is crucial in determining which bills make it to that elite group. So however you do it, remember that you have an exceptional opportunity – and that in this election year, as either a constituent or a volunteer or professional organizer in your district, you have a particularly loud and meaningful voice that counts to your elected officials. Use it well.
Sarah Friedman is a Government & External Relations Program Associate at UJA-Federation of New York, where her portfolio includes disabilities.