First and foremost: Do not believe false promises. Elected officials are not held to anything they say, write or do, unless it is enacted into law. If an elected official claims that a bad proposed law won’t be enforced in a way that harms your business, do not believe him or her. The government has the power to enforce whatever is passed, and there’s nothing stopping future administrations from enforcing the law in a more aggressive manner than their predecessors have chosen.
Remember: If you’ve registered your organization as a non-profit, you may be subject to regulations that restrict how you communicate with elected officials or prohibit you from communicating with them altogether. Check with an attorney about your local, state and federal lobbying laws before proceeding.
Understanding the Process
Your goal is to demonstrate to your elected officials that your policy solution both honestly aligns with their personal beliefs about the role of government and presents an opportunity for economic growth in your city or state. You want to make it easy for elected officials to do what you are asking them to do by providing them with political cover and neutralizing the opposition.
It is critical that you understand the legislative process and hearing schedule. You may have more than one opportunity to testify on a bill, and there may be an opportunity to amend legislation.
If your fight is at the city level, you will want to learn how many city council members are on your council and what areas of your city each represents. If a district isn’t represented by a member of your group, you may want to do outreach to entrepreneurs in that district so that you have core team members in each district of the city. You will need to find out when your city council is in session and when full city council meetings are held. What committees is your city council broken down into, and which committee(s) will your bill go through? Who is the chair of that committee, and who are the members? When does that committee meet? Familiarize yourself with how an ordinance becomes a law in your city. If there isn’t information online about this, contact the city clerk.
If your fight is at the state level, you will need to research how the legislature works. State legislatures (except for Nebraska) and Congress are broken down into two houses: the House of Representatives, House of Delegates or General Assembly; and the Senate. A bill has to be voted on and passed by one house, and then it moves onto the other house. After it passes the second house, it goes to the governor for his or her signature. Sometimes identical or nearly identical “companion” bills can go through both houses simultaneously to expedite the process, and if there are differences, they can be reconciled in what’s called a conference committee. Session times vary dramatically. Texas’s legislature meets for just five months every other year—leaving little time to take action. Meanwhile, Pennsylvania’s legislature meets year round.
You will want to familiarize yourself with the leadership of both houses, as well as the governor, since ultimately your bill will need his or her signature. Learn about what committee(s) your bill will need to go through and when its hearings are held. Familiarize yourself with how a bill becomes a law in your state. Most, if not all, state legislature websites have information for the general public on this process.
Identify Your Targets
Once you understand the legislative process, research your elected officials. Map out your support and opposition. Know as much as possible about each person.
Identify your targets. Don’t treat the entire city council or legislative body as a single target. Each person has different attitudes, constituencies and interests that you need to take into account in designing tactics. Whom do you need on your side? What motivates him or her? Continue to monitor where votes stand and what votes you need, to determine where resources should be targeted.
Remember: It’s important to identify your legislative targets early, so you’re not wasting valuable phone calls on policy makers who are already on your side and don’t need reinforcement.
Secure support for your cause. Target each relevant policy maker with a message that is uniquely tailored for him or her. Is a council member concerned about the impact of occupational licensing on lower-income entrepreneurs? Is he or she concerned that a proposal will violate the civil right to economic liberty? Again, you need to show how your policy stance honestly aligns with his or her personal philosophy and values.
Once you have identified your targets and developed your goals that reflect your mission, establish action items. Assign responsibility. You shouldn’t do this alone. Components of a strategy supporting your legislative efforts may include some or all of the tools detailed in this guide, from op-eds and talk radio to rallies and lobbying days. Consider the materials, facilities and funds you will need and plan accordingly.
Request a meeting with your own elected official who represents you, and, if logistically feasible, request a meeting with other policy makers whose votes you need. Go prepared with a presentation tailored to their interests.
Of particular importance is the chairperson of the committee that will hear the legislation. Try to meet with the chairperson or a member of his or her staff to convey your ideas and ask for the chairperson’s support of your position.
If you want to set up a meeting with your elected official, call and identify yourself as a constituent and immediately state your reason for wanting to meet with her. Explain what you would like to discuss and indicate how much time you think you’ll need and any other constituents you expect to attend the meeting. If the elected official is not available, politely ask to meet with a staff member who handles licensing or regulatory issues. Have several dates and times to recommend. Be sure to thank the scheduler for his or her time. Since elected officials’ schedules often change, you’ll want to call their offices to confirm the meeting time and place as it draws near.
Think about what you want to say to your elected official before your meeting. It’s best to use your own words because they are more personal and genuine. Remember that legislators often hear from lobbyists who are paid to walk the halls of the capitol. Your story is real, so make sure they know that. Canned letters and form e-mails don’t go nearly as far as something that comes straight from you.
Learn if your elected official has a stated position on your issue and if he or she has voted on it before. If your legislator does not share your views, you’ll want to educate him or her on the importance of stopping anti-competitive and arbitrary laws that inhibit economic growth. Explain how the assault on entrepreneurship affects you, your community and his or her constituency. Anticipate questions.
Legislative Hearings and Written Comments
It is critical, especially at the local level, to attend ALL hearings. These can be boring and repetitive, but it is important to let politicians know that they will not sneak legislation through without the public noticing. Bring your core team to each hearing, and speak at each one. Reserve mobilizing your broader base of support for key hearings, such as before a vote. You don’t want to exhaust your supporters, and it’s unlikely someone not directly affected by the policy will attend more than one hearing.
In advance of a hearing, prepare written comments. These will be submitted to the record. Try to keep them between two and three pages. Use real world examples of the benefits or harms of the proposed legislation. Remember, you are the expert. Be sure to personalize, humanize and dramatize your story.
Check with the clerk about when your written comments need to be submitted and how many hard copies you need to supply to the council or committee. Sometimes your comments can be submitted electronically and circulated via e-mail to the relevant elected officials.
Find out how long you have to speak, and prepare your oral comments. You may want to prepare a presentation. Typically you will be allotted anywhere from two to five minutes. You don’t need to repeat everything you said in your written comments; just hit your most important points. Don’t be long-winded, don’t rant and don’t repeat things others have said before you.
Coordinate with others testifying to ensure that you are collectively hitting the key talking points and themes (remember your SOCOs!) and are not repeating each other. It is important for the council or committee to get a full picture of the issues you’re facing, and they will tune out if you repeat one another.
You may have an expert in your group or a particularly effective witness like an unconventional ally whom you want to give more time to speak. You will probably be allowed to yield your time to that person, so she has more time to present.
Remember to always be courteous and respectful, even if you are not shown the same respect by your elected officials. Never be shrill or condescending.
Be forewarned: You may be in for a long day or night. Sometimes, elected officials put controversial issues at the end of their agendas, hoping supporters or opponents will leave before their time to speak. Other times, you may just have bad luck that your item is last on the agenda. Come to important hearings prepared to stay for several hours (or more).
If you want to propose your own reform, identify a potential legislative champion and request a meeting or phone call. Do this only after you have clearly outlined the reforms that you seek, which reflect your mission statement. Frame the issue as the positive opportunity it is for your city or state to embrace entrepreneurship and economic growth. Policy makers typically have someone on staff that is charged with drafting legislation. If you’re asked to present your own proposal, consult a lawyer—or IJ may be able to help you.
Policy makers are often busy and don’t have time to thoroughly research an issue, so you will want to make it as easy as possible for them to digest your argument, see why they should be on your side and vote in your favor.
You can prepare a one-pager or fact sheet on the proposed legislation. This should make it extremely easy for legislative staff and policy makers to quickly understand an issue. They have a lot of issues they’re dealing with, so you want to front-load your literature with the most important facts so that you don’t lose their interest. These documents should also be shared with the public and the media.
Some information to consider and include:
What are examples of how you and the members of your organization contribute to the community?
How many jobs and how much tax revenue is at stake?
Does this bad policy disproportionately impact a vulnerable population?
What harmful impacts does the bad policy have at the individual level—both to the consumer and the entrepreneur?
What are the tangible benefits your city or state will experience if the bad policy is rejected or changed?
What is your opponent’s best argument, and why is it wrong?
Include quotes from influential supporters. Use real world examples. Re-emphasize your SOCOs.
Prepare a Myths and Realities document that briefly counters the arguments of your opposition. Proponents of occupational licensing laws typically hide their true intentions by claiming they are trying to protect the public’s health and safety. You, too, are interested in protecting the public’s health and safety, through legitimate regulations that accomplish that end. Pick four or five of the opposition’s best arguments and debunk them simply and clearly.
Coalition letters are great ways to convey broad support across a wide spectrum for your cause. This is also a very easy way for groups to show their support for you, who may be too small or too big to devote resources to your cause. These letters are brief statements of support for your cause, with a list of organizations signing on at either the top or the bottom. “We, the undersigned, support X.”
You can also ask other organizations to submit statements to city council or the state legislature. These will often go into the official record on the issue. You might offer to draft a statement if the organization you’re reaching out to says they don’t have the time to do so.
Your organization should take advantage of these opportunities and send these statements to the media with a short message (e.g., “Today, the Institute for Justice submitted a statement to the City Council in opposition to Ordinance No. 1, which would ban vendors from public property.”).
You might be considering hiring a lobbyist. There may be an unusual situation where you need one, but these are the exceptions and not the rule. Be wary that lobbyists are expensive and have to answer to other clients, so they ultimately want to preserve their relationships with city council or legislators.
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