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Navigating the Legislative Process

There are some problems that only a change in statute can fix. Many changes in the law happen because one concerned, committed, and patient citizen worked the system to make a positive change. If you are right, you have the information to back it up, and you have the tools - it is not hard at all. It may take years, especially if your issue is large, costly or controversial, but it happens all the time.

People who love the law or good sausage should never watch either being made.

-- German Chancellor Otto von Bismark, 1815 - 1898

Laws can also serve to raise awareness about a problem. For example, a law cannot require that everyone become more sensitive and supportive of diversity in the workplace, but it can make sexual harassment illegal or offer diversity training for workers.

Links to articles with specific tools can be found at the end of this page, but first, a few things to remember.

Patience. It takes time to change a law or get a new one passed and it should. Most of the time, that is a comforting truth. By and large, things in Connecticut work pretty well. If it's not broken, don't fix it. Any change in the rules we live by should be thoughtfully considered and receive lots of public input before it is implemented. The law of unintended consequences is more powerful than any state or federal statute.

In 1995 for the first time in anyone's memory, the two houses of Connecticut's legislature were in the control of different parties. Republicans held a majority in the Senate and Democrats in the House. This meant that every committee had two chairs of different parties - a new and difficult situation for everyone. The process was at a standstill. In the midst of this, I attended a political event with several legislators and staffers. We were all complaining about the gridlock. A very wise retired Senator asked us, "So, because the houses are split, no one is getting along? No bills are getting passed?" Our frustrated answer, "Yes, that's about it." His reply, "Good. The people are safe."

Create relationships. If you do this right, it will be the beginning of a long-term relationship. Even if you win this one vote this time, chances are you (or someone else on your issue) will be back again next year. Legislators and staff are eager to get your input. Don't burn bridges. Be as helpful as possible. Use all your listening skills. You will pass more bills with honey than with vinegar.

Perspective. Everyone sees the world through the lens of his or her own experiences and biases. Legislators are no different. While your issue is your first priority, it may not be theirs. You have to meet people where they are. If a legislator votes for your bill because it saves money (his reason), not because it improves the health of children (your reason) - no matter. It's still a yes vote.

A long time staffer from another state told me a story about a Senator he knew. She was a retired teacher and a committed advocate for teachers. Testifying or lobbying on any bill on any subject, she invariably asked how it would affect teachers. The bill might be about banking or homelessness; it didn't matter, she still wanted to know how it affected teachers. Advocates who were ready for the question and had a passable answer, got her vote.

Understand and respect the system.

  • Learn the history of your issue - If what you are asking for has been tried and failed (or they think they tried it), you need to know that and address it.
  • Consider the prevailing climate - In a time of severe budget deficits, expensive programs are unlikely to pass. Election years have their own karma.
  • Respect the expertise of others - You'd be wise to take the advice of advocates and lobbyists with years of experience. The legislative process is always changing but there are constants. It doesn't always work the way you learned in civics class.

Choose your lobbying target(s) well. Too many of us spend our time preaching to the choir - lobbying our friends who already agree with our position. Sometimes we spend precious resources lobbying legislators who aren't on the relevant committee.

Give solutions when possible. It is hard to argue for the status quo. Don't just be a critic, offer an answer. Show how your idea will address the problem. It is best if your solution has no costs or you can make a case for cost effectiveness. For help on that, go to Finding and Using Data.

Be respectful of everyone. You wouldn't think you'd have to say this, but it's amazing how many people forget this. Write thank you notes. Understand that a staffer who is not letting you in to meet with a legislator without an appointment or getting you exactly the document you want right now, is just doing their job.

Those are some general themes; more can be found in Tips No Advocate Should Forget and Classic Advocate Mistakes.

To understand the formal legislative process, go to How a Bill Becomes a Law.

You will need a champion to shepherd your cause from the inside and guide you through the process. Go to Proper Care and Feeding of a Champion.

Go to Legislators - Who they are to better understand the realities of the office.

Go to The Importance of Legislative Staff to learn about the best kept secret in legislative effectiveness.

For help in joining your voice with others, go to Collaborations and Coalitions.

For specific tools, go to:

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