Getting Past Gridlock: Government Relations in the Age of the Shutdown

By: Rob Stott

Despite recent success on a budget deal, the 113th Congress is on pace to be the least productive bunch in the nation's history. As a result, association government relations departments have been forced to shift their advocacy focus elsewhere.

Partisan. Challenging. Unpredictable. Gridlocked. These are just a few of the words used to describe the environment on Capitol Hill during the first year of the 113th Congress. In the 2013 legislative session, lawmakers managed to pass just 56 bills, allowed automatic budget cuts to take effect, and drove the federal government into a two-week partial shutdown. By comparison, the 112th Congress—previously thought to be the least productive ever—enacted 90 laws during its first year and, despite the threat of a shutdown, managed to avoid one.

Despite an uncharacteristic burst of bipartisanship that brought about a budget agreement in December, few believe the climate will shift significantly in year two. The current environment is both good and bad for associations and their government relations departments. Good, because less legislative activity means fewer potentially harmful pieces of legislation that require action. Bad, because getting bipartisan support for a bill that an association supports—in either chamber, let alone both—is practically impossible.

Even bills that were once seen as shoo-ins for passage, like energy policy legislation that the Washington, DC-based Association of Home Appliance Manufacturers supported, are becoming points of contention in Congress.

"It's frustrating in the sense that, when you're trying to decide what your best direction to go is, you find yourself needing to sit back and analyze the probability of Congress acting on something that was once an easy bipartisan bill," says Kevin Messner, AHAM's vice president of state government affairs. "Every year now there's a different set of factors on whether or not you think you can get a bipartisan agreement."

How Little Got Done?

You don't need to be an avid Hill watcher to know that the 113th Congress did a whole lot of nothing in its first year. But just how little did its members actually accomplish?

According to congressional records, through December 2013, this Congress has enacted 56 laws—a new post-WWII-era record low. The previous was set by the 104th Congress in 1995. The 112th Congress, said to be the least productive Congress in history (283 laws in two years), managed to pass 90 laws during its first session.

Partisan gridlock and constant budget battles are widely credited with causing the record lack of productivity. But according to Amy Showalter, president of The Showalter Group, Inc., if you pull back the veil, you'll see another factor at play: the increased effectiveness of grassroots communities in influencing the legislative process.

"Fifteen years ago, 20 years ago, there weren't staff roles for full-time grassroots managers and vice presidents of advocacy," she said. "Add onto that, social media and other forms of communication, which have energized both sides of the aisle, and, as a result, there are no free votes anymore. Members of Congress have a real challenge with that, and they're not terribly courageous in making those hard votes."—Rob Stott

Shifting Focus

Because of this state of stagnation on the Hill, groups find themselves having to change their strategies in order to get things done and continue to show members that they are working to advance the association's mission.

Messner refers to his GR activity as a three-legged stool. Whether it's Congress, federal agency regulations, or state governments, AHAM will pursue the path of least resistance when pushing its agenda, a strategy that other GR experts stand behind.

"The work of government relations never stops," says Amy Showalter, president of The Showalter Group, Inc. "If one avenue for action is blocked off, there is always another open somewhere, where a group can try to get something done."

Beyond Congress, there are three other areas where associations can push their agendas.

State governments. Things move faster at the state level. "The relationships really make a difference there. And talk about grassroots input—we're seeing that 10 personal emails at the state level can make a huge amount of difference," Showalter says. Overall, the process may take longer, having to work in all 50 states, but state-level advocacy can build momentum behind an issue and force action at the federal level, she notes.

Working with state representatives can be a nice change of pace as well, says Showalter. "It's maybe their first or second elected office, so the work is still new, it's still novel, it's still fun. They are paying attention to constituents more than perhaps a jaded member of Congress."

Regulatory agencies. Especially during a period of extended gridlock, government relations departments can shift more of their attention to the thousands of pages of rules and regulations—both proposed and final—compiled in the Federal Register.

Successfully getting a rule changed might accomplish only half of what a full-blown piece of legislation would, but that's still a mark in the win column for an association.

"If there's a view from the companies or membership that Congress is in gridlock and it's just chaotic and nothing's getting done, then they should just read the Federal Register notice every morning and see that that's not the case," Messner says. "There's a lot of activity that's out there."

Coalition building and grassroots. Downtime on the Hill presents an opportunity for associations to work on building relationships within their industry and beyond it, meeting and collaborating with groups that share the same vision on a policy issue.

"Having those relationships in place and maintaining them is important," says Kevin Kraushaar, CAE, president of J. Warren Strategies. "You're only as successful as the value of your relationships. That's the key to having success in moving legislation forward."

Engaging the Core

Another relationship just as important to maintain is the one you have with your most engaged members. After all, fly-ins wouldn't be successful, email campaigns wouldn't happen, and the association's mission would have no support without them. GR professionals say that if associations don't continue to engage members now, they risk being left out to dry once Congress gets through the gridlock.

It's not easy, though. Part of the current challenge is that with no major legislative successes, it's harder to define what an advocacy win is for an association.

"A win may mean working with a subcommittee to hold a hearing on the issue, or getting 20 members of Congress to sign a letter to the administration or to an agency asking for something, or inserting whitepapers into the Congressional Record," says Kraushaar. "Sometimes it's not as catchy, it's not as eye-popping, but you've got to figure out the best way to promote those small wins to show your members, 'I'm on the Hill, talking about our issue.'"

Just as important, GR departments have to show their value to members beyond just pushing the association's agenda forward.

"I know a lot of GR departments that will help a member with constituent casework and help open the door to a conversation with an elected official," says Showalter. "That's a member service. That's something that no other department in the association can do, and they need to be able to articulate the value of that. Helping members navigate red tape, helping them save time, helping them work through the bureaucracy of the state, local, federal government on something—GR staffs do that for people every day."

New Normal?

So, should legislative stagnation be considered the new normal?

"It depends on the timeframe you're looking at. In the next year or two? Probably. Will it continue to get worse and worse, as we've seen over the last few years? Possibly," says Messner. "It's hard to predict the future, and that's where people are struggling."

If the gridlock culture continues, patience will be a quality that all GR professionals will need to work on, says Showalter.

"They have to maintain perspective and remember that they're not as great as their last victory, nor are they as bad as their last failure," she says. "Sometimes we really believe that all eyes are on us and the world will end if we don't get our initiative passed, and that's just not true. When one legislative door closes, three more open up that we can pursue. Our work never stops, even if Congress has."

Rob Stott is assistant editor at Associations Now in Washington, DC. Email: [email protected]

Rob Stott

Rob Stott is a contributing editor to Associations Now.